FOO TPATHS, NO T ROADS, connect vil- lages in the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan, Sudan, and motor vehicles
are scarce. But there is a 3D printing lab. The
region is officially a war zone, caught in the
conflict between Sudan and the new South
Sudan. In late 2013, the California-based
technology company Not Impossible established a prosthetic printing facility to assist
the growing number of amputees.
Project Daniel, named for a teenaged boy
who lost both of his arms to a bomb attack,
has fitted its namesake with a printed RoboHand prosthetic. Since then, local trainees
have printed and fitted two more prostheses
after the lab’s founders left the operation in
The lab seems like a non sequitur in that
pastoral context. And critics may point out
that it owes its existence to the world outside of Sudan as a technology transplant in a
lesser developed region. But 3D printing may
be catching on in the developing world.
The technology leapfrogs some problems
more cheaply than traditional methods.
There are few roads in the Nuba Mountains,
but printing things reduces the need for
delivery. Printing also reduces waste and
saves money. In 2013, a research team at
Michigan Tech found that printing things
is both cheaper and consumes less energy
than buying them. In time, printers in remote
regions may manufacture parts to repair
other devices, create new products and, of
“3D printing is something that has definitely taken off in South Africa. As for most
of 'Africa' that will take some time. But it will
certainly get there. Let’s give them a year,”
Richard Van As, the South African who invented the Robohand and trained Sudanese
technicians to print the prosthetic, told E4C.
To make something, 3D printers melt a filament, which is usually plastic, or sometimes
a soft metal or even a food, like chocolate.
Then they deposit it, stacking layer upon
layer to gradually build an object.
Not Impossible brought Van As together
with an international team to launch its
lab. But fans of 3D printing and other rapid
prototyping tools can pool their knowledge
in less formal ways. Low-cost communica-
tions make it happen through wikis and
other shared documents, text messages,
VOIP calls and so on. Those work because of
the famously generous spirit of open source
communities. The worldwide 3D printing
community seems to bend toward open
source tools and donated time for support.
As far we can tell, most 3D printers in de-
veloping countries remain confined to techni-
cal universities and specialized workshops
such as FabLabs. FabLabs, an extension of
MI T’s Center for Bits and Atoms, provide
tools to prototype inventions and stimulate
local entrepreneurship. Nearly 130 are up and
running worldwide, many of those in Africa,
India, Southeast Asia and Latin America.
Take Dhananjay Gadre and his 3D-printed
lantern, for example. Gadre, a professor of
electrical and computer engineering at Netaji
Subhas Institute of Technology in New Delhi,
India, designed and printed parts for a lantern
that mimics a flame and even turns on when
touched with an electronic “matchstick.”
people could acquire one,” Gadre says. In fact,
he has been predicting their popularity for a
while, he says.
Back in South Africa, Van As seems equally
as optimistic about the printer’s prospects.
“3D printing is certainly a great buzz and I
think it will last for a good while to come. It
seems that it may also become part of the
education systems in the schools all over the
world,” Van As says. •
“There is a lot of talk
about 3D printers and
the time is very ripe for
this gadget to explode
on the scene.”
3D printers remain confined
to technical universities and
specialized labs in developing
countries, but enthusiasts
believe their time in the
spotlight has nearly come.
3D printers may be poised to take off in