Emerging Technologies

How 3D printing is transforming aid

Magda Mis
Production Editor, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Emerging Technologies

Umbilical cord clips made with a 3D printer are already saving babies’ lives in Haiti, but the technology could soon be used to make car parts for relief trucks and entire shelters for disaster survivors.

Or so says Andrew Lamb of Field Ready, a U.S.-based NGO specialising in innovation in humanitarian aid.

In December 2014, the group began testing 3D printing in a hospital in Haiti, where nurses were using hair clips and shoe laces to tie the umbilical cords of newborn babies.

After a successful trial making umbilical cord clips with a 3D printer, hospital staff are now using the printer to produce parts of an oxygen mask and even an occasional light switch.

Field Ready believes 3D printers, which make products by layering material until a three-dimensional object is created, could be deployed directly to disaster zones to allow life-saving supplies to be made where and when they are most needed.

This would save time and bypass cumbersome processes related to complex supply chains.

“It does seem perhaps a bit ridiculous that we have this entire supply chain system at a time when we have emerging technologies that allow us to make supplies in the field,” Lamb told me on the sidelines of a humanitarian innovation summit in London this week.

“It’s a relatively simple idea of putting small-scale manufacturing capabilities such as 3D printers or laser cutters into a disaster relief responses so that aid agencies and the people themselves, many of whom have plenty of skills, can use these technologies to make their own supplies.”

Research suggests relief agencies spend up to 80 percent of their income on logistics. Producing devices in the field could cut this cost by 40 percent, Lamb said.

“It makes sense that when you’re talking about $10 billion to $15 billion of income to aid agencies being spent on purchasing stuff and moving it from A to B,” he said. “I think people will realise the opportunity of (3D printed supplies) very quickly.”

Lamb said that although the technology still has some limitations, he’s hoping that within a few years Field Ready will be able to deploy 3D printers capable of printing metal car parts and even shelters.

“We’re not able to fix Toyota Land Cruisers yet, but what we’re trying to do is to work with partners so that we’re in a position to be able to provide that kind of support when the technology is available,” he said.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Magda Mis is a Thomson Reuters Foundation correspondent, based in London.

Image: A figurine is printed by Aurora’s 3D printer F1 during the 2014 Computex exhibition at the TWTC Nangang exhibition hall in Taipei. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang 

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