Printing a Better Life

By Professor Dennis Shaughnessy

By now most of us have heard about the promise of 3D printing.  Also known as “additive manufacturing” this new technology holds great promise for firms both large and small, especially in the area of on-demand production of parts and products.

In the nonprofit space, organizations and networks of volunteers are collaborating to bring the most cutting-edge 3D printing technology to those in need in all corners of the world. One network, e-NABLE, has grown from a few volunteers to over 10,000 in just four short years. Founder Jon Schull will join us as part of the SEI Speaker Series to discuss his role in this global movement on February 26th.

In new venture world, 3D printing allows entrepreneurs to pursue the “lean start-up” approach by printing inventory when and as needed, rather than using scarce capital to build inventory.  In the medical products industry in the US, 3D printing has led to a variety of new implantable devices made from advanced materials and customized for a patient’s particular need.

While it’s no surprise that 3D printing has initially landed in well-funded industries in affluent countries like advanced manufacturing and medical devices, 3D printers offers great promise in the social impact and human development space as well.  Here we’ll look at two areas:  prosthetics or artificial limbs, and houses.

3D-Printed Prosthetics (Replacement Limbs)

It’s exciting to learn about the use of low-cost and easy-to-use 3D printers in producing affordable prosthetics for people with limb loss.

A large percentage of people across the world who were born without or who have lost a limb live in poor communities in the developing world.  As many as 35 million low income or poor people would benefit from a fitted prosthetic hand, arm or leg but can’t afford one or don’t have access to someone who can fit them properly. The WHO estimates that only about 5% of that population has received or can afford a traditional prosthetic, due to access, cost and trained professionals who can properly fit a prosthesis.  

The most common reasons for the loss of a limb in a developing country are trauma, conflict, congenital conditions and road accidents.  The earthquake in Haiti in 2010, ongoing conflict in  Syria and the Sudan, treacherous roads in Nigeria and India are all contributors along with congenital conditions to the global problem of missing limbs and no prosthetic solution within reach.

3D printing allows for the creation of very low cost and customized advanced prosthetics for poor people in need of a functional replacement limb.  A 3D printer capable of producing a replacement limb can cost as little as $500, with the most advanced systems that enable advanced materials priced from $2500 for single systems to $50,000 for large systems.  3D printed limbs have the advantage of easy personalization or customization, low cost and lightweight production, easy replacement of damaged units and local production capacity.  Software that enables practical and simple design solutions are key, as are training programs for people to fit prosthetics.  The WHO estimates that there is a worldwide shortage of 40,000 trained prosthetists.

Founded in South Africa, a non-profit firm called known as e-NABLE is a first mover in this space, in developing technical capacity, training local prosthetists and reaching out to marginalized people and communities with free or affordable high-functioning replacement hands.  Enabling the Future or e-NABLE has 7,000 professional members and access to more than 2,000 3D printers specifically suited to prosthetic production.  Another impressive organization is The Victoria Hand Project, where they have pioneered versatile replacement hands.  

One example of a non-profit targeted effort is LimbForge’s Hands for Haiti, a non-profit that provides fitted 3D printed arms and legs for people in need, including the many who lost their limbs in the Haitian earthquake of 2010.  Similar organizations include Po of Paraguay, Project Daniel in Sudan and 3D PrintAbility.

Providing more and better 3D printers to community-based organizations that can also provide training and outreach presents a compelling new opportunity for social enterprises.  As advances continue to push the cost of producing a high-functioning lightweight prostheses down, greater access will follow.  The rise of social businesses in this space is a key to further growing a sustainable global solution to this compelling medical need.

3D-Printed Homes (“Shacks”)

While at a much earlier stage of development, we’re also seeing startups explore the space of 3D printed small homes to replace the makeshift shacks that millions of people live in in slums and poor villages around the world.  

“Printed houses” are in the early stage of development, but the technology is beginning to see progress.  The next step is of course to continue to push the cost of production lower to increase affordability for a larger population.  Also, moving from cement to recycled materials like plastics will make this path to new home production for poor and low income families a more sustainable business and solution.  

3D printers capable of printing entire homes are of course far larger and more expensive than prosthetic limb printers.  Yet this space presents an intriguing opportunity to improve the lives of people living in shacks or other structures that fail to offer a safe and dignified life.

Two start-ups of note:  World’s Advanced Saving Project (WASP) of Italy, which makes a giant 3D printer using mud or clay as the material, and Apis Cor of San Francisco which uses more traditional materials for home production.