By Ngonidzashe Katsamba
Most observers have called it the third industrial revolution whilst some think it’s a phase that’s going to come and go. 3D printing or additive manufacturing, moves us away from the Henry Ford era of mass production line, and will bring us to a new reality of customizable, one-off production. It can “print” in plastic, metal, nylon, and over a hundred other materials. It can print manufacturing prototypes, end user products, quasi-legal guns and even car parts. Need a part for your home appliance? As it is now, you’d order from your repairman who gets it from a distributor, who got it shipped from China, where they mass-produced thousands of them at once, probably injection-moulded from a very expensive mould. And in the case of Zimbabwe where people like going direct to the source, you would have to ship it yourself which means waiting for weeks and paying duty just to get your fridge working.
However, in the future, the beginning of which is already here now, you won’t need to go through all this trouble. Instead of buying parts, you will simply 3D print the part right in your home from a CAD file you downloaded on the Internet. Instantly printing parts and entire products, anywhere in the world, is a game changer, but it doesn’t stop there. 3D printing will affect almost every aspect of industry and our personal lives.
Medicine will forever be changed as new bio-printers actually print human tissue for both pharmaceutical testing and eventually entire organs and bones, making transplants easier. Architecture and construction are changing as well. Now, 3D-printed models of complex architectural drawings are created quickly and inexpensively, rather than the expensive and time-consuming process of handcrafting models out of cardboard. Experimental, massive 3D printers are also printing concrete structures, with the goal of someday creating entire buildings with a 3D printer. Art has also been changed. Digital artists are creating magnificent pieces that seem almost impossible to have been made by traditional methods. From sculptures to light fixtures, beautiful objects no longer need to be handcrafted, just designed on a computer.
According to ipo.gov.uk worldwide, Google searches of 3D printers and printing grew by 80% over a period of 3 years i.e. from 2011 to 2013. And surprisingly, compared to past technological trends which have been spear headed by the developing world, a research by associationof3dprinting.com forecasts that demand for 3D printers will be highest in Africa in the period 2015-2017.
These research findings struck me; why would Africa want 3D printers so much? But later I realised that Africa as a continent has not grown in terms of industrialisation and is currently exporting raw materials to the developed world which adds value to these through various manufacturing processes for resell to Africa at a higher cost. Based on this analysis, could Africa be trying to use 3D printing as a technology for manufacturing its own products?
Due to the low cost of setup, compared to conventional manufacturing lines, this could be it. 3D printing could help Africa and Zimbabwe to leap frog straight from Agrarian based economies to 3D printing based industrialised economies. Instead of importing plastic spoons, cups, car parts etc. what if all our plastic needs were catered for locally through use of 3D printers? This will definitely reduce the countries import bill whilst creating employment and self-sustenance. To top it off 3D printers are environmentally friendly since they do not emit carbon fumes and require very little power; compared to conventional production lines.
After realizing this opportunity I went out searching and believe it or not, 3D printers are already present in Zimbabwe, albeit on a small scale. As I write, there are some hobbyists who are doing 3D printing using PLA and ABS plastics. The printers are being used for prototyping and can be used to make once off customised products. One example shown to me was a case for a Raspberry Pi computing device (blue in the image above).
Evidently interest in 3D printing is present in Zimbabwe. However for this technology to take off on a national scale investment is needed and this can be done using the simple server farm concept where a lot of servers are bunched up for maximum productivity. Using the same concept 3D printer farms can be setup where we have warehouses full of 3D printers mass producing products for local and international markets on a large scale. Secondly investment in the setup of Computer Aided Design (CAD) and graphics design courses in tertiary institutions is also needed to ensure we have enough skilled people to work in these 3D printer farms.
Ngonidzashe Katsamba is a passionate Telecoms marketer who holds Honours in Business studies from the University of Zimbabwe, an Advanced Diploma in Telecommunications and Digital networks engineering from City SND Guilds UK, a Professional Diploma in Marketing from CIM (UK) and is currently work towards Chartered Marketer status. Ngoni has been working in Zimbabwe’s Telecoms industry for the past 5 years and he has seen Zimbabwe’s Telecoms industry consumption from purely voice to a mixture of voice and data with data on the growth trend.