Techies in the construction, manufacturing and medical fields are almost unanimous in their agreement that 3D printing is one of the innovations that are found to shape the future of industries in a profound way. And indeed a quick glance into this revolutionary technology reveals eye-popping capabilities that will dramatically change the face of manufacturing.
Sample this: With this form of technology, you can make a car or construct a building based on a digital design. All the parts of the desired product are fed into a 3D printer and what comes out at the other end is your car or house, all complete with every part fitted as precisely as it can get.
In essence you can order a house or a car, or indeed any other product you want, from your manufacturer or contractor, and you wait right there as you see it take shape before your eyes, and in few hours you are driving the car or living in your house!
Precisely the stuff of science fiction, right? But this is what is really unfolding right before our eyes. It may not be that fast yet – it may realistically take some days to have your car or house – but the technology promises to do just that sooner rather than later.
So what are the nuts and bolts of 3D? The technology, which means Three-Dimensional, is an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. It works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid, powdered plastic, metal, cement and then neatly fusing the parts together.
It is not just in making cars and building houses that 3D is applicable. Far from it. It can be used in practically every sphere of human endeavour – healthcare, aeronautical, energy, smartphones, furniture and fashion.
It gets even more intriguing in its application of improbable domains such as food and body organs. These are unlikely candidates for 3D given their sensitivity, yet the technology is fast encroaching in these areas.
Your kitchen 3D printer will cook the kind food the doctor ordered for you. All you need is to download a digital file that has information about your taste, nutritional requirements, allergies, among others.
And by pressing a button, your printer then goes to work and in few minutes your food is on the table, all steaming and spiced to every inch of your preference. You can now even print a pizza complete with all the flavours consonant with your taste!
The health field has not been left behind. Emmanuel Mutio, founder of Nairobi-based 3D printing firm Nanodrex, says the technology is already being used widely in the medical realm. In reconstructive surgery, he says, 3D prototypes are created to enhance accuracy in the replacement of fractured or broken bones.
“Before doctors separate co-joined twins, they have to create 3D designs first to know where to cut,” says Mr Mutio who founded his company in 2015.
At St Lukes Orthopaedic and Trauma Hospital in Eldoret town, for instance, the technology is currently in use in the production of prosthetic arms and legs for those who have been amputated or born without hands.
Dr Kibor Lelei, the chief executive of the hospital says the future of medicine will heavily rely on 3D printing as it has by a large margin reduced the cost of access to healthcare.
“For now we are using it to make prosthetic arms faster and more accurately. for a process that takes 14 days in normal hand replacement takes 5 days with this technology. And it is ten times more affordable. This is only the beginning, the technology will become more widespread in future,” notes the senior orthopaedic surgeon.
African manufacturing and medical companies, Dr Lelei notes, can take advantage of the technology since it is available on open source platforms and machines can read prototypes from any software.
There are benefits galore for African companies that adopt the technology. Perhaps the overriding beauty of the innovation is that layers upon layers of labour-intensive processes that characterise manual work are eliminated, substantially cutting not only the costs but also the time taken to complete the projects.
According to David Oginga, the firm engineer at Kisumu based Kijenzi 3D, in addition to significantly reducing costs and saving time, 3D greatly enhances production volumes and quality of products, and affords companies flexibility requisite in designing bespoke products and services.
“Moreover, it helps in reducing wastage through its vast precision capabilities,” he states.
Though 3D printing is making baby steps as it finds its footing in Kenya and Africa as a whole, experts are betting on the technology to immensely bolster the capabilities of industries, enabling them to design products that can hold their own when subjected to global competition that is getting stiffer each day.
Experts are urging African countries not to be left behind but angle for its fair share of the expanding 3D market as the uptake of the transformative technology gathers pace.
“This ought not to be a daunting challenge given that large-scale manufacturers around the world are shifting their approach to producing various parts and equipment, while small-scale producers are leading in creating prototypes and placing them online for anybody with a 3D machine to access them for free,” says Nehemiah Mutie, the general manager of Machakos-based AB3D firm.
According to Statista, a global data platform, 3D printing products and services are projected to increase to more than $40 billion by 2024, with a growth rate of 26.4 percent each year between 2020 and 2040.
“Because well designed prototypes can be accessed for free online, and the materials are affordable, now is the time to use this opportunity to quickly adapt and create new products,” says Mehul Shah, chief executive of Nairobi-based 3D firm UltraRed Technologies.
Mr Shah believes that the technology can be a game-changer in creating jobs for developing countries as companies can produce variety of products, including those classified as hi-tech or specialised.
In the past four years, his company has been involved in rapid prototyping, product design, computer-aided engineering and 3D printing for clients.
Rapid prototyping is a method used to quickly create “a scale model” of a part or finished product, using a computer-aided design (CAD) software. Manufacturing of the part is mainly done with 3D printing, a technology that he says can help solve many societal challenges.
“Product design is all about understanding the best possible way to solve a problem and approaching it from a wide lens. We believe that there are countless ways to solve problems and design challenges. We just need to find the combination that works,” he says.
Customers want designs that neatly blend lifestyle and aesthetics, with function and form, adding that this is what has motivated him to come up with designs for plastic parts, electronics and sheet metal.
“Optimising the design of products using feedback from customers and an iterative design approach gives birth to true innovation,” Mr Shah says.
Free 3D software available online includes AutoCAD, 3D Slash, SketchUp, Blender, Tinkercad, NanoCAD, LibreCad, OpenSCAD, Sculprits and MakeHuman.
Since the technology relies on simple tools, Mr Shah says more players should join the manufacturing bandwagon in order to meet high demand for advanced automation for better quality products.
To be a 3D printer operator, the experts say one does not demand too many skills or expensive materials.
“It helps to be a good 3D designer but you do not have to. You don’t even need expensive tools or exotic material. You can customise to suit any demand and start producing immediately,” Mr Shah reveals, who quickly adds that all the technology calls for are agility, dynamism and adaptability.
“One day you can be making engine parts, the next day footwear and the next you could be designing a model for doctors to perform surgeries. You can even print pizza for your family,” he notes.
In the recent past, Mr Shah says, 3D printing has gained an immense stature in printing medical equipment parts.
“Stethoscopes, parts for oxygen concentrators, air machines, dialysis machines, insulin pumps, sanitiser containers and even small tools such as tweezers can be printed,” he notes.
How much does a 3D printer cost? Mr Mutio says a 3D printing machine can cost as low as Sh30,000 or as high as Sh4 million, depending on their use. This means this technology is not the preserve of companies or individuals with deep pockets.
In future, it is anticipated that all 3D printers will be integrated with smart technologies and machine learning. And with this combo of ground-breaking innovations, the unrealistic world of science fiction will catch up with us in real life.