Digital technologies could leapfrog Africa to a decentralised, autonomous mass production. The key ingredient to this revolution is 3D printing. Calestous Juma looks at its rapid development, provides a snapshot of its almost infinite uses, and suggests what must be done to support this possible industrial revolution.
Africa is on the cusp of the next digital revolution. In February, a young Togolese entrepreneur, Afate Gnikou, stunned the world by winning first prize at the 10th International Conference of Barcelona’s Fabrication Laboratory. The winning technology was a 3D printer. The design did not come from one of Africa’s top universities or research institutes. Gnikou and his team assembled their prize-winning printer from electronic waste collected in dumpsites around the Togolese capital of Lomé.
This story demonstrates the advantages of being a latecomer. Gnikou was able to leapfrog to the frontiers of technological innovation mostly because of the large bodies of scientific and technical knowledge that are freely available today. With the assistance of crowd funding, he was able to build a working prototype costing just $100. However it is not just the availability of technology, but Gnikou’s creative drive and determination that mattered. He told Euronews: “My dream is to give young people hope and to show that Africa, too, has its place in the global market when it comes to technology. We are able to create things.”
Catching the wave
Gnikou caught a new wave of technological innovation in its early stages. The question is whether Africa appreciates the possible transformational power of 3D printing. The technology works by translating digital information into physical objects. Computer software directs molten metal, plastic or other material to build an object layer by layer.
The technology turns traditional manufacturing upside down. Instead of centres of mass production, it makes possible decentralised production by the masses. The technology has many attributes that would enable Africa to leapfrog into a new age of industrial production.
First, the printing process is controlled by software and dispenses with the many mechanical parts found in traditional manufacturing. For this reason, the printer is easy to use and move around.
Second, much of the software is open source, so it can be downloaded online. In fact, the explosive emergence of the 3D industry is a result of the expiry of critical patents, which is driving down the price of 3D printers.
The global 3D printing industry is growing at nearly 46% annually. The world market was worth about $2.5 billion in 2013 and its value is projected to exceed $16 billion by 2018. 3D printing in metal is growing twice as fast as the rest of the industry, signalling the growth of industrial applications of the technology.
Third, 3D printing is additive rather than being subtractive. New products are built up layer by layer. In old manufacturing practices, materials are cut, bent, melted and cooled. 3D printing has less ecological impact than traditional production, wasting less energy and resources. In addition, 3D printers can also produce spare parts, reducing the need for extended industrial supply chains.
Finally, the technology allows users to be producers, or at least have a far greater input into production. The possibility for highly creative communities of creators or makers to drive the innovation process is significant.
Production as art
3D printing could have far-reaching implications for Africa’s technological development in fields such as consumer goods, industry, agriculture, fashion, culture, art and construction. Some of this is already happening.
Early this year, Hans Fouche of South Africa was able to print a lawn mower in just nine hours. He followed this with a vacuum cleaner that also doubles as a flowerpot. The potential for printing other household products is only limited by people’s imagination and the size of the printer. This work is a glimpse into the potential for the industrial application of 3D printing across Africa.
Anything from furniture to mansions can now be printed. Indeed, a Chinese firm has printed a five-storey mansion. Early concerns about whether 3D-printed houses were safe are being dispelled, and the door is now open for the rapid design and printing of houses to suit a broad range of needs. Such a technology could be applied to meet Africa’s housing shortages.
Africa does not have a shortage of cultural production, but here too 3D printing could play a big role. Many of Africa’s artworks housed in museums around the world can now be digitised and reproduced. The printed replicas would bring the works closer to African audiences and might help to resolve long-standing disputes about how Western art institutions obtained the works. But more importantly, 3D printing would make it easier to restore and expand African traditional crafts, many forms of which are dying because of the depletion of raw materials. The technology could help revive the production of carvings by the Akamba (Kenya) and Makonde (Mozambique) peoples. The rich culture of making masks stretching from West Africa to Southern Africa could receive a new lease of life through 3D printing.
Making clothes from recycled materials has its creative allure. Big players like Levi’s are making jeans that incorporate plastic bottles. African women have done this too by making clothes with a waste plastic content. But 3D printing can now revolutionise this in an additive fashion. Instead of cutting cloth and wasting parts of it, the technology allows for the creation of individualised clothes to suit the occasion, without waste.
The power of 3D printing lies in tapping into local needs and inspiring creativity. It does not require formal structures to do this, and everyone can participate in the technology. For example, 3D printing can enable rural women to rapidly prototype agricultural tools adapted to their culture, cropping systems and environments.
With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the 3D4AgDev programme of the National University of Ireland (Galway) is experimenting with such a use-driven innovation approach among rural women in Malawi. Rapid prototyping is a first step towards the production of new tools based on new designs.
This initiative has broader implications for African industrial development. One reason for Africa’s marginal role in the global product market is the lack of access to machine tools for prototyping. As 3D printing takes off, African firms should be able to hugely reduce the time and cost needed to get from design and prototyping to the manufacturing stage of product development. As an example of the cost savings to be made, a pilot project in Uganda funded by Grand Challenges Canada aims at reducing the price of prosthetics for amputees from $5,000 to $250 using the technology.
What is to be done?
As Afate Gnikou has shown, the entry barriers into 3D printing are still low. Now is the time for Africa to get into the game. There are at least two important entry points. The first is getting the culture of 3D printing into schools so that young people can become familiar with the technology. Bringing printers into the schools would also help to inspire interest in engineering.
The second step is to add 3D printing technology to the innovation hubs spreading across the continent. Many of them focus on information technology and so their occupants have an interest in digital technology, which is a core part of 3D printing.
The bigger challenge lies in getting African governments to play a role in integrating 3D printing into their industrial and educational programmes. Their contributions can utilise their experience of expanding the markets for mobile communication. Probably the most important lesson from the mobile revolution was the importance of early entry. It is only by engaging early that Africa can benefit and shape the direction of what is billed as a more inclusive industrial revolution.