Imagine a technology that creates any object you can imagine, be it a plastic wrench, a spoon, a shower head or even prosthetic limbs, all at your fingertips.
Now imagine if you could do this at your home, making the things you need whenever you needed them instead of having to go to a shop to buy them.
Though it's been around for a while, having been invented in the 1980s, 3D printing has only recently taken off, driven in part by a reduction in the cost of equipment. 3D printers that used to cost US$20,000 in the 1980s now cost less than $1,000. While the technology was initially used on a small scale to produce prototypes and scale models, it is now being applied in specialized small-scale manufacturing.
What is it exactly?
Well, it’s a technique used to create three-dimensional solid objects layer by layer using materials such as metal, plastic and ceramics. The printer builds the object layer by layer from a digital file on a computer until it is completed and ready to be used. Pretty amazing isn’t it?
There’s a reason why 3D printing is being touted as the next stage of the industrial revolution. It allows for distributed manufacturing. Rather than producing things on a large scale from a centralized location and having to distribute them, you can send a design to someone who can then print it out at their location.
Secondly, the machine allows you to print complex objects which don’t require to be assembled upon completion. This means that you can create something as difficult as a clock and not be required to put all the gears together.
Thirdly, the technology can be applied in a number of areas, including construction, medicine, clothing and even art. It represents a return to a more artisanal way of life, which is markedly different from today's mass-production culture.
3D printing technology allows for faster, eco-friendly and cost effective production. A company in China successfully printed a two-storey house in less than 24 hours earlier this year! Sounds like an interesting use of this technology. You should definitely try it out if you have access to a 3D printer as big as a house and enough printing “ink” to print one out.
Around the World
Global companies such as BMW and Nike are using 3D printing with interesting results. BMW has used the technology to for a number of years to create prototypes and hard to find parts for their cars. Nike more recently made a running shoe for Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce to wear on the track in Rio. German cyclist Denise Schindler will be using a prosthetic leg which was customized using 3D printing.
The answer to Africa's problems?
Surely if this technology is so fantastic, Africa needs to adopt it to sort out the mess that has held back manufacturing on the continent. However, the initial cost of this tech is prohibitive. 3D printers cost on average R6 500 (US$ 480) for a low end printer. On top of that, you will need additional components to add on to the printer, such as an SD card reader for R529, 12V power supply kit for R549 and other components which all add up to approximately R4 400 thus making the overall initial cost around R10 900 (US$ 810).
Then why is it the cheaper option?
Well, it depends on what you want to make and how much of that product you need to supply. The printers use a 1kg plastic filament just like 2D printers use ink bottles. According to an article on Digital Harbor, 1kg plastic filament can create approximately 98 iPhone 5 cases. The filaments retail for about R285 each.
If one where to use a 3D printer to produce 98 iPhone cases, the average cost of one case would be R114, which is more than the average price of about R100 in local stores.
However, if one were to scale up production to make 980 instead, each iPhone cover would cost R14. This leaves scale as a deciding factor.
Although costs are an obvious reason to the limited adoption, there are other barriers to owning such a machine for a small enterprise. Designing and printing anything needs some knowledge of Computer-Aided Design language, which the user has to learn in order to design and tweak their own drawings. 3D printing also needs a steady and reliable power supply and an internet connection to run the machine.
3D printing has the potential to fix many problems, especially for small scale businesses looking to manufacture products quickly and at their location. Imagine a mechanic in your local community making their own car parts and tools instead of having to order from abroad, or a toy shop making custom toys on order. Printing on location would be much cheaper.
While Africa lags behind in using this technology, 3D printing could revolutionize the future of the continent. If past innovations are anything to go by, we have a history of skipping stages in the evolution of technology and accomplishing things with limited resources. I guess it’s just a matter of time until 3D printing really takes off, and the results are bound to be fantastic.