This blog has consistently hyped technology as one of the most promising solutions to the problem of poverty. However, there is one technology whose potential I have previously failed to recognize: 3-D Printing.
With a 3-D printer, an operator plugs in a virtual blueprint for an object, which the printer uses to construct the final product layer by layer. Several types of these printers exist, using a variety of materials as the “ink.” The most popular models work by extruding a filament of molten plastic. The print head makes repeated passes over the item being printed. It thus builds a 3-D structure. Other “inks” are also being used including clay which are used in the construction of homes.
The recent migration toward 3-D printing in the developing world deserves highlighting for several excellent reasons:
1. 3-D printed solutions are often far more affordable to low-income people when compared to the most affordable alternatives. This is particularly true in landlocked countries like Uganda where it is very expensive to import materials and products.
2. Most 3-D templates are open source. Small businesses can quickly take advantage of existing templates developed by others and can learn from their mistakes. Open source templates also allow for rapid iteration.
3. Training local people to use 3-D printers allows for a level of decentralization that was previously not possible. These printers combined with mobile internet access, will enable developing economies in Africa and elsewhere to create a new manufacturing model that overcomes the obstacles associated with traditional manufacturing, like poor financial and logistical infrastructure.
An amazing variety of products can be made with 3-D printers. Contour Crafting is using the technology to build homes. The company plans on using 3-D printers to improve substandard housing conditions in the developing world, and provide dignified emergency housing for people in disaster situations.
Plastic Bank, which recently launched in Peru, is another company with a 3-D printer idea. If low-income people pick up plastic and bring it to Plastic Bank huts, they can exchange it for food, clothing, and other items. They also have access to 3-D printing training and facilities so they manufacture their own products from plastic.
A group called Water for Humanity plans on using 3-D printers to custom-build composting toilets and rainwater harvesters. They will be looking for suitable local entrepreneurs in developing countries and will train them on how to build, use, and maintain the printers.
But 3-D printing also brings up concerns. For example one comment writer on Ted asks:
With a dose of corruption and a pinch of money, what’ll stop extremists from designing and manufacturing firearms in a basement? Unless violence is eradicated from the human genome, it is best if useful, life-changing technologies are left underutilized.
Others wonder what 3-D printing might to do existing manufacturers. Might it have the potential to destroy certain industries. All technological innovations have unexpected impacts.
These are real concerns and they need to be addressed. But for the moment, the upside of 3-D printing, particularly in developing countries, is far greater than the downside.