By Dr Bitange Ndemo, Associate professor, University of Nairobi

“3D Printing has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

President Barack Obama

Did you know that in 1990 a novel project to manufacture motor vehicles in Kenya was abandoned due to the high cost of building five prototypes? Today new technologies such as 3D printing are making it possible to not only develop prototypes at a fraction of what it cost a few years ago but also provide us with the capacity to create more complex products than ever before.

The automotive industry is in fact among the earliest adopters of 3D printing technology initially using it for making prototypes but now increasingly for the production of end-use products or parts: Ford, GM, Audi, Jaguar and Land Rover have been using 3D Printing for a long time now. The savings on costs and time and on the parts count are enormous. The technology brings down the number of parts in cars from tens of thousands to under a hundred. Ford has been able to slash its production costs replacing its old production methods that used to take four months and cost $500,000 with 3D Printing that would cost$3000 and take just four days.

A US 3D printing company, Local Motors, has made a car, christened as Strati, with a fully 3D printed body and only with 49 parts. Local Motors is also offering its clients a walk-in service where they design the specifications of their car and have it printed in less than two days. It is for this reason that 3D printing is believed to be on track to revolutionize manufacturing in the emerging economies that embrace it.

3D printing is a type of industrial robotics. Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, it refers to the use of a computer to produce three-dimensional products of many shapes and forms. Well developed in the United States, Europe and Asia, this new technology is finding its way to Africa. In a recent Blog Post in the Daily Nation, I detailed how three University of Nairobi students, Roy Ombati, Karl Heinz and Wendy Banja started a new 3D printing startup, AB3D in Nairobi.

While in college the three students took interest in the Fab Lab at the University of Nairobi, a program started with a partnership from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and spearheaded by Dr. Kamau Gachigi. They partnered in a project supported by the Dutch non-governmental organisation, Hivos, dubbed “Happy Feet”, which prints customized shoes for people with feet deformed by jiggers.

As demand for the service grew across Kenya, they aspired to scale up and take the printers nearer to the people most in need. They soon began manufacturing local 3D Printers instead of importing them.

Today, they produce not just the printers but the materials (filament) required to run them and they are on track to be the main provider of all 3D printing services in the region.  The opportunity to manufacture products including dentures, prosthetics and spare parts with 3D printers is enormous. Already AB3D is producing parts for different types of products. A key challenge however remains in nurturing this nascent industry to enable it to scale, which requires investments for capacity building and sustained research and development (R&D).

There is greater need now than ever before to develop strong tripartite relationships between universities, industry and government to revive the manufacturing industry and make way for the 3D printing revolution.

The need for 3D printing, especially in the medical field, is expected to increase exponentially. New research increasingly shows that ‘stratified’ or personalized medicine is the future. A May 2015 report from the Academy of Medical Sciences reported that “the terms ‘stratified’, ‘personalised’ or ‘precision’ medicine all refer to the grouping of patients based on risk of disease, or response to therapy, using diagnostic tests or techniques. This approach provides an opportunity for patients and healthcare providers to benefit from more targeted and effective treatments, potentially delivering more healthcare gain and improved efficiency for the healthcare system, while offering industry an expanded market for specialised treatments and the opportunity to benefit from the incremental value delivered by more effective products.”


Lucas Mearian in an article in the March 2016 edition of Computer World entitled “3D printing makes an easier-to-swallow drug” states that the first 3D-printed drug to receive approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is now on its way to pharmacies. He notes that the 3D printing technology allows drug companies to better manipulate the composition of drugs compared to traditional press and die pill-making technologies.

Both The Academy of Medical Sciences report and the Computer World article point to the future of medicine enabled by 3D printing and highlight the enormous opportunity to solve healthcare challenges common in many developing countries.

Questions are being asked about whether 3D printing will destroy or build the world. Some feel the technology will infringe on intellectual property. Others argue that it may shift manufacturing back to the developed world, which is traditionally outsourced to developing countries where labor is cheap. A reversal of this trend could translate into employment losses in developing countries.

But time and again such anti-technology arguments are proven false. In the early 1980’s when computers were first introduced, many governments, including Kenya, banned their use in government offices for fear that they would lead to mass redundancies of secretarial jobs.

Today, there is a computer in virtually every government office and yet more people are hired to work in government than ever before. More significantly, productive efficiency continues to improve as a result of the adoption of new technologies.

We may not fully comprehend the future of 3D printing technology at the moment but we can be sure it will further increase productivity across many sectors.

As we keep improving the materials used by the 3D printing (most commonly called filament), it’s plausible that we could be printing body parts to save lives in the near future. Bioprinting of artificial human tissue and organs, or ‘bioficials’ as they came to be known, is a growth area.

3D Printed blood vessels, liver and eye tissues have been made by Organova, an American bioprinting company that made the world’s first bioprinter. The printing of a ‘bioficial’ heart to be grown from the patient’s own fat stem cells is a work in progress that may be realized within the next 5 to 10 years. Bioprinting of organs will do away with the waiting time for organ transplant or the search for compatible donors not least the inhuman illicit trade in organs.

There is no doubt that 3D printing is already a game changer in the manufacturing industry but there is great unmet need in developing countries where the sector has been hindered by high costs. The application of 3D printing in the fields of medicine, art, fashion and retail, gaming and entertaining, and security will enhance employment and create job opportunities across Africa, where an information and communications technology (ICT) boom is rapidly spreading. It is imperative that African countries start to look at how to bring 3D printing to every village and what is required to initiate an aggressive program of capacity development in local polytechnics. Because, it does not take a genius to understand the potential of 3D printing to make a difference but rather a vision. Once again African countries, and other developing countries around the world, have an opportunity to join the industrial revolution that is already underway; it’s high time they seize it. 

Dr Bitange Ndemo is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School and was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication, Republic of Kenya.