After losing four fingers from his right hand in a woodworking accident in May 2011, Richard van As was still in hospital when he decided he would make his own replacement digits.
The South African inventor quickly found that conventional prosthetics are prohibitively expensive – a hand can cost between $10,000-15,000 – and began to search for a way to bring the cost down to an affordable level. The answer, he decided, was 3D printing.
The technology allows designers and makers to translate computer models into physical objects. The printers themselves add material – often plastic, but increasingly other materials as well – one layer at a time. The technique has been used for decades, but often by large companies at considerable cost.
The price of printers has plummeted in recent years, however, bringing them into the price range of small businesses and individuals, who previously may have struggled to transform their designs into reality.
Freed from holding inventories or shipping products around the world from manufacturing clusters in Asia, 3D printing could allow a generation of entrepreneurs to decouple themselves from last century’s infrastructure in the same way that e-commerce pioneers escaped the gravity of the high street in the 1990s.
For African economies, which famously leapfrogged fixed-line telecommunications to adopt mobile technology, 3D printing may be a shortcut to the creation of manufacturing companies in regions with previously prohibitive infrastructure costs.
“3D printing is much cheaper and faster than traditional cut-away technology,” van As says. “In the next five years the African 3D printing market will see new jobs and new businesses appear… Factories of the future will be using 3D technology.”
Back in 2011, the potential for 3D printing was barely understood, and van As had to build his own printer. Since then, his company, Robohand, has fitted more than 170 prosthetics, which cost less than $500 to produce. The computer models for the hands are available for free online, enabling anyone with access to a 3D printer to make one.
Canalsys, a technology market research firm, forecasts that 3D printer sales will reach $16.2bn worldwide by 2016, up from $3.8bn in 2014. Africa is likely to be a major growth market, with the number of devices sold on the continent rising 25% year on year until 2017.
Companies, such as South African-based Rapid 3D, have pioneered low-cost 3D printers aimed at African consumers and small enterprises, with prices starting at R19,995 ($1,725) – the cost of a mid-range diesel generator.
Some entrepreneurs in Africa have gone further. Afate Gnikou, a Togolese inventor, was the subject of breathless headlines around the world after he won first prize at the prestigious International Conference of Barcelona’s Fabrication Laboratory with a 3D printer assembled for $100 from scavenged computer parts.
“I do not believe that price is really a limiting factor, far more important is understanding the true strengths, limitations and potential of the different 3D print technologies.” says David Bullock, co-owner of Rapid 3D.
“3D printing applications in Africa will not be too much different to the rest of the world, we have seen pioneering work in medical, hearing, aerospace, art, fashion and jewellery industries, to name a few.”
Designers worldwide have found a wide spread of applications for 3D printers. In the Netherlands, Dus Architects have 3D-printed a house. Hans Fouche of Fouche 3D Printing in South Africa has printed lawn mowers, shoes and a vacuum cleaner.
Moving the means of production close to the designer or to the end market massively reduces the cost of fabricating and testing prototypes. In countries where the cost of moving goods is disproportionately high – as it is in several sub-Saharan economies – this has proved a major barrier to the creation of small manufacturing enterprises.
“3D printing is often called ‘the next industrial revolution’, and while I’m not sure how much I agree with that term, it will certainly change the world,” says Joe Kempton, lead 3D printing analyst at Canalys. “To be at the forefront of a manufacturing revolution, the long-term gains to developing countries, particularly those in Africa, would be numerous.”
3D printing is by no means a panacea. Operating the technology in areas with unreliable power supplies could be difficult, and its use still requires the import of plastic or other refined material.
The per-unit cost of 3D printed goods is not necessarily lower than that of mass-made and shipped goods – yet.
“One of the main drivers to the growth of 3D printing is the convenience it brings. By using the technology to create products and prototypes without the need to import them across the world improves time to market and thus the technology has ‘spill-over’ effects into a host of related industrial manufacturing areas,” Kempton says.
“The fact that 3D printing is being used to help transform people’s lives in these regions is a sign of the progress the technology has made and the future it has.”