Feature Story

3D Printing Innovation That Aims to Make a Difference

by Sue Tabbitt

A look at how 3D printing technology has the potential to empower less-developed communities around the world to access products and services the more advantaged take for granted.

The more that appears in the media about the wonders of 3D printing, the more frustrated UK innovators are becoming – because many reports give the impression that it’s only a matter of time before we’re all making mobile phones or replacement vehicle parts in our own homes.

The reality is that such application – mixing materials including electronic parts, and doing this in our own homes - is still a good 15-20 years away, if indeed it ever materializes, according to Professor Richard Hague, a British expert in additive manufacturing at the University of Nottingham. This is due to the cost of the technology, the advances that still need to happen to allow plastics and conductive metals to be processed using the same machine, and the quality assurance issues when manufacturing is taken out of a carefully controlled environment.

But this shouldn’t detract from the other exciting developments that are already becoming a reality. The UK is a hub of innovation in 3D printing, and some of the latest and most inspirational developments are being showcased at the 3D Printshow in central London. On October 19th at the event, the winner of an exciting new global contest, the 3D4D Challenge, will be unveiled. The winner, chosen from a shortlist of seven international contenders, will be the 3D printing innovation deemed to have the most potential to transform people’s lives in the developing world.

3D printing at a glance

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, allows companies or individuals to make or ‘print’ prototypes, bespoke objects or parts on demand from a digital model. Unlike traditional machining, the process does not begin with a piece of metal or plastic and then sculpt away unwanted material until the required part remains. Instead it creates the required part exactly as specified, in layers, directly from a computer-aided design (CAD) file.

Soft-tissue prostheses

Among the contenders is Fripp Design, a UK 3D printing specialist founded by Tom Fripp and Steve Roberts. In collaboration with the University of Sheffield, the company is pioneering a solution that will make soft-tissue prostheses (replacement body parts such as an ear or nose) more accessible to citizens of developing nations, in cases where individuals have been struck by disease, accident or deliberate disfigurement.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, which provides grants for medical research, the two parties have developed a method of rapid-manufacturing customized prostheses using additive manufacturing techniques. Whilst Fripp Design’s focus to date has been to develop a commercial proposition for the UK National Health Service, the 3D4D Challenge has provided an opportunity to develop a low-cost system for the developing world - so that people in local communities can manufacture soft-tissue prostheses for themselves. Where a UK-manufactured prosthesis costs over $1600 to make, it should be feasible to make an equivalent product for under $16 using 3D printing. This could enable tens of thousands of people to have their lives transformed.

Once the final logistical hurdles have been overcome – including the purchase and installation of the technology as well as the training required for people to use it, centers could potentially be set up in the developing world within weeks. Target markets initially are India and China. Steve Roberts, co-founder of Fripp Design, explains the importance of the project: “Sheffield University had already been declined funding because investors believed the technique to be impossible,” he says.  “But after undertaking a feasibility project through which we were able to manufacture some prototype parts on a 3D printer, we established that this was not the case.”

The specific benefit that 3D printing brings to the situation is that it overcomes traditional production constraints. No special tools are needed because the process ‘prints’ straight from digital 3D computer-aided design (CAD) files.

What’s exciting about the 3D4D competition is that the winning project will receive a $100,000 prize to enable the qualifying innovation to be implemented.

Cola power

The other finalists are similarly inspirational. Another UK-based team’s initiative - ColaLights - is based around creating solar lamps from used plastic cola bottles to replace dangerous kerosene-fuelled lamps in India. 3D printers will be used to produce the bottle caps, charger attachments and circuitry locally, keeping costs low and promoting industry in disconnected rural communities.

Producing food in extreme conditions

Boris Kogan, representing Israel and the U.S., is working on an easy-to-manufacture and assemble robotic greenhouse which will enable local communities to produce good food with ease, even in the most difficult environmental conditions.

Custom shoes with a difference

A project from the University of Nairobi in Kenya meanwhile is aimed at combating foot infections caused by The Jigger Fly, which is rife in parts of East Africa. Specially-designed 3D printed shoes will be produced from recycled plastic to prevent resulting foot deformities from deteriorating further.

Each of the finalists has received $1,000 and access to expert mentors to ready their projects for the final next week. Short video pitches for each will be available to view at the show and online so that the public can vote for their favorite entries.

Promoting high-impact innovation

The 3D4D Challenge is the brainchild of TechforTrade, the operational name of Trade4all Limited. The UK charity was established in early 2011 with the aim to alleviate poverty through technology-enabled trade, acting as a catalyst for new ideas and working with innovative projects with the potential to scale and replicate.

William Hoyle is the founder of the charity. His interest in 3D printing arose from research into empowering small rural producers in developing countries. “Someone had sent me an article from The Economist about the technology. It made reference to a company in Goa that was using gold powder to make jewelry,” he recalls. “I started to wonder about the potential to send CAD designs for parts for drilling machines or water filter pumps so that they could be made remotely in Africa.”

William got in touch with Professor Richard Hague and Dr Phil Reeves, two UK experts in additive manufacturing. “They helped me look into the technical possibilities of using 3D printing in a third-world context,” he says. “Our discussions confirmed the opportunity. The price of specialist printers is coming down and it’s becoming possible to scan images with a mobile phone to create a CAD file. In countries like Kenya, 3G and the Internet are widely available, so 3D printing really isn’t a pipedream.” In devising the 3D4D contest, TechforTrade has remained true to its mission to encourage the promotion of technology where it targets real areas of need.

But what do the realists think? Professor Hague is one of those to have rolled his eyes at some of the more outlandish claims made in the media, but has acted as an advisor to the 3D4D Challenge. “A lot will be possible,” he says. “I’m not such a believer in people making things in their own homes, but I do think we will see ‘hubs’ appearing and these projects aimed at developing regions are exciting. The 3D4D Challenge is very inspiring. It’s nice to see a resurgence of people working to make a difference. The Fripp Design example is beautiful and will make a significant difference in the lives of individuals once it’s up and running.”


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