3D Printing and Micro-Manufacturing in the Humanitarian Space

The potentially transformative nature of technology is always seductive to the humanitarian community.  Technologies often serve as vessels to carry a vision of a better future.   It seems too that over the last decade every consumer electronic or social media site is sold as a ‘disruptive’ technology.  The humanitarian community gravitates to such ‘disruptive’ promises in the hope that these technologies will result in a radical departure from the status quo of illiteracy, high rates of morbidity, social injustice, and failing infrastructure.   Laptops for children are believed to metamorphose educational systems and provide teachers where none exist.  Mobile phones are a vanguard to ensure democracy, and social media with ‘big data’ can mitigate disaster altogether.  Obviously the promise of technology often falls short.

Absolutely new technologies have done good to increase transparency, efficiency and simply improve, if not save, lives.  Often new technologies do contribute to the vision they carry.  However, many of the social ills and infrastructural challenges still exist in as fierce of a form, and often the technologies that are rolled out in numerous pilots in fabulous exuberance are surpassed by newer technologies.  More often than not, pilots applications of technology simply do not scale.

Such myopic optimism for technology is not limited to the last decade and a half; coinciding with the Internet and other ICTs.  If taking the long view back to the days of the ‘green revolution’, faith in technology has always caused aid to ‘double down.’  Indeed the green revolution did many wonders, but hunger still exists for reasons that are economic and social, for which there is little technical remedy. In the more recent past, concepts of ‘bridging the digital divide’ and ‘last mile’ neatly communicated the hope of new information technologies.  The trouble with short hand exuberance is that serious details are lost, and many of the ills information technology was to intended to address have not lessened.

The above is a long winded introduction and way of highlighting the good and the bad of humanitarianism infatuation with technology.    No one should be shocked then as the humanitarian space begins to think about and ponder the applications of 3D printing.  Having worked with 3D printers and other micro-manufacturing technologies over the past couple years, and combining this with field experience on other systems, the following thoughts are not an attempt to criticize the efforts and work of others, or to criticize a whole class of technology.  If anything the intent is meant to calibrate our own enthusiasm.

Small or Unique Production

Often 3D printing is referenced as one of several “rapid prototyping’ technologies, and in this case it is true.  It is rapid for prototyping.  Manufacturing……not so much.  Even on some of the faster machines, a part that is a few cubic inches can take hours to print.  Consider this small bottle that is capable of holding about 1/3 a cup of liquid.

Image from thingiverse.com. (http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:65922). On a relatively higher end consumer 3D printer, this item took 1 3/4 hours at standard quality.

.  Similarly, a CNC router, which uses a subtractive process to cut away material, will often take hours to build a unit.  An small-scale injection molding machine, can result in numerous small items per minute, but to do so, the mold must have been created earlier.

Where these technologies shine is when a unique item must be created.  Great examples are printing of highly customized prosthetic limbs or creating parts that did not exist or exist at a certain size, such as the perfect fitting trachea valve.  While individual applications are wholly good and heartwarming, one has to ask if the application of rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing techniques will scale to a macro-level to address a humanitarian or development objective.

Staying in the health application arena, I am not as convinced creating umbilical clamps on demand is a good showcase of the technology.  If the printer or other device is being used in multiple ways, then great, but otherwise, such clamps can be acquired for $0.20 – $2.00 each.  Clearly if a hospital is operating without these items, the problem cannot be solved by simply ordering a few hundred dollars worth of supplies.  However, if supply of disposable, mass-produced items is a problem, then I suspect maintenance and raw material supplies for a 3D printer will be an equal if not greater challenge, which still misses some core capacity issues at a hospital.


Slow Production

Fabrication Is Art, Not Science

Anyone who has used a 3D printer, CNC, or small-scale injection molding machine will know that these fabrication appliances are not nearly as reliable or automated as a desktop printer.  Prints fail hours into a session, and there is little hope of resuming.  Every designed object has to go through several iterations to determine the best settings (E.g.- temperature, speed, etc.).  Machines of the exact same manufacture and model, typically possess slight differences requiring individual calibration.  Humidity changes day-to-day, and even drafts in a room, can affect some prints.

Certainly these fabrication appliances will become increasingly more reliable and automated in the coming years, but even then I suspect a lot of tinkering, either with the designed object or individual printer, will be necessary.  While my focus here is on extrusion printers, much is true of DLP (Digital Light Processing) printers, which need calibration to the resins and dyes used in the resins.  Similarly, In terms of project implementation, thinking of these devices as desktop printers is a poor analog.  It is better to consider a sewing machine, when thinking about the level of training, support, and skill necessary for successful operation.  Modern sewing machines have increased advance and semi-automated features, are now surprisingly inexpensive, and have significantly improved reliability.  Yet, operating a sewing machine takes considerably more training than pressing the ‘print’ button.  An operator must understand stitch types, the characteristics of the material being sewn, and have considerable knowledge of the machine being operated.  Of course the operator must also have some sense of design / pattern development, or must be able to follow and understand a pattern developed by someone else.  And in the case of sewing, some basic physical skill and acumen is necessary to


the an analog to these devices iFor deployment in developing country contexts, inevitably this will require extra training, development of support networks, as well as physical considerations such as an uncontrolled environment (no temperature or humidity control), dust, and electricity brown out, black outs, or ‘cleanliness’ issues leading to circuit timing and control problems.

So what are the limitations and concerns with micro-manufacturing technologies?  I will list several issues here, but mostly micro-manufacturing technologies are often not a good alternative.  There appear to be few use scenarios where the import of mass manufactured goods Speed-  After typhoon Haiyden Cost-

I heartily applaud the efforts of iLab // Haiti. I think iLab’s approach to 3D printing technologies is conservative and appropriately looks to fill niches in applications, particularly health, where customization is necessary, or where stockpiling a diverse number of ‘tools’ is not possible.


First off, 3D printing is often referenced as a member to a group of technologies for rapid prototyping and

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