But while these developments have stirred up excitement that Africa could leapfrog the process of industrial revolution, they have also raised concerns that the technology could pose new challenges to the continent’s new manufacturing industries.

3D printing might sound like something out of a science fiction novel. The technology allows three dimensional objects to be “printed” out from a digital design, with layers of different materials layered by computer-controlled robotics to create a finished object.

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The technology is relatively new, but with 3D printers being used to make everything from bikinis in the UK to houses in China, it is increasingly clear that this it is here to stay - and its applications will only expand.

According to a recent study by the market research company The Freedonia Group, the demand for 3D printers and software will spike by 21 percent through 2017, reaching a value of $5bn. The majority of the sales will be in the United States (42 percent), western Europe (25 percent) and Asia (23 percent). However, the same report predicts that the number of 3D printing purchases in Africa will also rise by 23 percent over the same period.

Enthusiasm for 3D printing is gathering pace in Africa. Pioneering entrepreneurs have used 3D printers to find solutions to challenges in the realm of health. Last summer, surgeons at Kimberley Hospital in South Africa’s Eastern Cape used a 3D printer to create a jaw implant for a reconstructive facial surgery operation. It was only the second time that such surgery had been carried out using a 3D printed implant.

In many ways it makes sense for a South African hospital to be at the forefront of such experimentation with implant technology. Conventional implants can be prohibitively expensive for the 80 percent of South Africans without medical insurance.

South African inventor Richard van As has also made headlines for his tireless work to design 3D printed prosthetic limbs for amputees. Again, his target market is those without medical insurance. Mr Van As’ 3D printer, RoboBeast, produces prosthetics for difficult environments, such as remote villages or even war zones.

“It is clear that a segment of the market is ready to embrace 3D printing and they have been waiting for something local and reliable,” says Simon Carter, marketing director at RoboBeast.  “At this stage the RoboBeast is the one and only, but it will not be long until the floodgates open and many new entrants enter the African  market.”

Meanwhile in Zambia, Priscilla Lumano-Mulanga at the Vanderbilt-Zambia Network for Innovation in Global Health Technologies is working on a project to create a 3D printed device to test people for Malaria in remote areas.

“We could actually prototype and design devices here in our labs at Vanderbilt, and then transfer those design files over email or cloud storage to our collaborators in Zambia and they could print them out and the very next day go out and field test those designs,” Ms Lumano-Mulanga explains in a report published on the Vanderbilt University website.

A number of Africa-based designers have come up with low-cost 3D printers aimed at their local market. Apart from Mr van As, South Africa’s Peter van der Walt of openhardware.co.za has conceived BabyBot, a $500 3D printer. South African entrepreneur Quentin Harley has also designed the RepRap Morgan - another inexpensive 3D printer - which won the Uplift Interim Personal Manufacturing Prize in 2013.

Another exciting innovation is the $100 3D printer Togolese entrepreneur Kodjo Afate has created using e-waste - mainly the disused parts of printers and scanners from the country’s dumping grounds. Mr Gnikou’s resources were modest. He used $4000 of crowdfunding and based his design around a Prusa Mendel 3D printer, which is popular in the US and Europe. The latter, however, is made from new, conventionally-sourced parts rather than e-waste.

"My dream is to give young people hope and to show that Africa, too, has its place on the global market when it comes to technology. We are able to create things,” Mr Gnikou said in an interview with Euronews.

Changing manufacturing?

Stories like these have fuelled heated discussion about the potential impact of 3D printing on African manufacturing industries. This is touchy territory. The performance of manufacturing industries, from South Africa to Senegal, is one of the continent’s biggest disappointments. One of the most controversial and unpopular aspects of China’s economic engagement with Africa is its success at exporting cheap consumer goods to the country, which has made many local manufacturing endeavours unviable.

Some have questioned whether 3D printing could be even more damaging, snuffing out Africa’s manufacturing industry before it even gets started.

In particular, there is a fear that manufacturers of plastic-based products could be particularly vulnerable to the impact of 3D printing’s rise. Manufacturers who rely on demand from design entrepreneurs for prototypes and the eventual roll-out of finished products could also be vulnerable. If startups can print their own inventions, then they will not need to outsource the job to local manufacturers.

However, the majority of experts seem to agree that 3D printing does not have to compete with traditional manufacturing. In fact, many insist that there is little threat to conventional high volume manufacturing.

On the other hand, 3D printing could prove interesting competition for lower volume production manufacturing that also demands implementation of complex designs. Even then, 3D printing can complement rather than compete with traditional industrial outfits.

“My sense is that 3D printing might have a chance in new product areas and will not compete with sectors that are dependent on raw material exports,” says Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, and an expert on 3D printing in Africa.

“I think the most important uses for the technology will be prototyping and making of niche products. Only time will tell whether such niche markets might grow. 3D printing might expand the range of products rather than replace existing industries,” he adds.

Indications of how 3D printing could be a boost for local manufacturing rather than causing harm can be drawn from developments already taking place in the West. General Electric is a case in point. It has committed to using 3D printers to make around 85,000 fuel nozzles for 5,000 airplane engines between 2016 and 2021. The approach demonstrates how 3D printing can be incorporated into the manufacturing process rather than being something alien that endangers it.

The same goes for the use of 3D printing in other arenas, such as manufacturing some complex automotive parts. It can take weeks or months to make some car parts using conventional manufacturing methods. Some automotive companies, including big names such as Honda, Ford and General Motors, are now exploring opportunities to use 3D printing in their production lines. These innovations could cut processing time to merely days.

As well, many goods that are created through 3D printing still need to be polished and finished off using traditional machines - indicating that, at least for the foreseeable future, traditional skills and manufacturing methods will still have a role to play.

On the other end of the scale, some commentators have queried whether 3D printing could enable Africa to leapfrog the process of industrial revolution. On this view, 3D printing could be a silver bullet. Africa’s poor industrial capacity and weak infrastructure would no longer be such an impediment to certain economic activities if countries no longer needed traditional machines and skills to make things.

However, experts have doubts about this perspective.

“3D printing will be an addition to what is going on and not a replacement. It would be a mistake to see 3D printing as the answer to Africa’s industrialisation challenges. Other infrastructure concerns such as energy and transportation will not be solved by resorting to 3D printing,” says Professor Juma.

Nor does Juma seem to feel that the rise of 3D printing will drastically alter the kind of industrial and design skills in demand - at least not in the short term.

“Reaching industrial scale will require new skills and so the introduction of new courses in universities and colleges might determine how the sector evolves. I do not see the prospects for large markets in the early days of the industry but pockets of applications.”

Mr Juma’s overarching feeling is that it is too early days to make any firm predictions about the future of 3D printing in Africa and the changes it could bring about.

“The best we can do now is to flag opportunities, but it would be presumptuous for me to tell which way the industry might evolve. In the early days of mobile phones it was not possible to predict that the impact might be in banking,” he points out.

“I cannot predict where this technology might take root but...there are a few examples such as Togo and South Africa and they illustrate the dangers of thinking that one can predict the evolution of a technology. Who would have thought that a 30-year old geographer in Togo using electronic waste would be one of the first champions of 3D printing in Africa?”

This article was originally published by This Is Africa, a sister publication to fDi (www.thisisafricaonline.com)