There is little doubt left that 3D printers are opening a new door for responding to human needs the world over. Even in the realm of outer space, efforts are being made to better understand how 3D printing technology can improve upon our existing high-tech capabilities. Printers that can create bigger or smaller, faster or with new materials, more inexpensively or under the roughest conditions are under development and in use. As exciting as it is to be on the frontier of new technology, there are also obligations to understand how this technology can not only serve business, military, or engineering purposes, but how it might address human suffering, despair, and desperation.
We have seen the possibilities present for improving the human condition in a number of ways already, for example, the use of 3D printing to create drones that can fly search and rescue missions; its use to produce prosthetics and hearing aids for those in need; and the production of surgical guides and devices in order to provide expert medical care. The products of 3D printing are very nearly only as limited as the imagination and it is clear that the ability to harness the power of this technology when and where it is needed is an enormous benefit for those using it. Teams of people are currently exploring how best to deploy 3D printers into space, and now a team of researchers at Michigan Technological University, led by prolific open source 3D printing proponent Dr. Joshua Pearce, are setting forth guidelines for the production of a resilient, reliable 3D printer expressly created for use in addressing humanitarian crises.
In the paper, the team first outlines an eloquent exposition of how using 3D printing technology could transform both the effectiveness and the efficiency in addressing humanitarian crises. They then move on to outline the parameters within which it is necessary to work when creating a machine for such a purpose.
The six capabilities that they have recognized are:
- The ability of the 3D printer to make useful parts
- Its ability to function independent of infrastructure
- Ease of transportation
- Safety and ease of use
- The ability to withstand harsh environments
- Minimal cost
They then cross referenced those capabilities with eight design elements identified as advancing that capacity: fused filament fabrication, open-source RepRap, modular design, separable frame, protected electronics, flexible power supply, on-board computer system, and environmental control.
Using those guidelines, the team developed a series of 3D printers which were then tested in Western Kenya for a period of two months in order to understand how they reacted to use in an environment outside of a conventional 3D printer habitat. The 3D printers, named Kijenzi — which roughly translates to ‘little maker’ in Swahili — were subjected to treatment not unlike that which they might receive in field use during a humanitarian crisis, including prototyping, production, dis/reassembly, and rough transportation. During its trial, the machine produced over 30 unique parts for use in hospital settings, ranging from anatomical models to replacement parts for medical machinery. This initial foray into the creation of such a 3D printer was a qualified success, as the authors outlined:
“The Kijenzi represents an early foundation in developing a 3D printer that is able to meet the capabilities required for rapid manufacturing in a disaster response. The eight elements incorporated into the design of the Kijenzi were all found to be beneficial in achieving the desired capabilities, however, these eight elements alone were found to be insufficient to create a 3D printer fully ready for deployment. Future work must be done on the Kijenzi design and with our commitment to open-source development it is hopeful that others will build upon the work presented here so that the technology may reach a level of maturity necessary for effectively addressing the many challenges associated with humanitarian efforts.”
The Kijenzi 3D printer is far from perfect; the team has already identified weaknesses and areas for further study, such as the lack of alternative power supply solutions, but it is a solid first step in the creation of the ideal machine for use in rough situations. The strengths of their machine were most obvious in the areas of ease of use and ease of transportation, as well as the benefits of the machine’s modularity and its ability to withstand harsh environmental conditions. The final cost for their machine is just under $525 for a basic version and just over $775 for the deluxe version, including a heated bed and on-board computer, making it much less expensive than most commercially available desktop 3D printers.
“Development of a Resilient 3-D Printer forHumanitarian Crisis Response” was published in March 2018, written by Benjamin L. Savonen, Tobias J. Mahan, Maxwell W. Curtis, Jared W. Schreier, John K. Gershenson, and Joshua M. Pearce The authors have made the entire paper, which details the 3D printer in relation to each of the capabilities and design elements, freely available for download.
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