Disruptive Technology - 3D printing prosthetics are only the beginning in Africa

01 August 2016

3D printing is an emerging technology that’s helping to tackle a variety of issues in sectors ranging from agriculture to healthcare. Enthusiasm for this technology is not limited to Europe and America; in fact entrepreneurs in Africa have been using 3D printing to find innovative solutions to some of the challenges they face. These solutions include creating malaria diagnostic toolkits, producing labour saving agricultural tools and designing prosthetics for amputees.

The ways in which 3D printing can be used is astounding but it is the catalysts behind the use that are really driving the success of this technology. Not only can it greatly reduce the costs of manufacturing, it also allows items to be rapidly prototyped, printed on-site to custom specifications, and takes advantage of open-sourcing and user-led design.

While there are numerous possibilities for 3D printing in Africa, a brief look at how the technology is revolutionising the world of prosthetics, demonstrates the ability of this technology to reach previously isolated groups and give them the tools to create sustainable solutions.

Over a lifetime, an amputee will typically need upwards of 15 different prosthetics, costing thousands of dollars for replacements and maintenance. At present, there are not enough trained personnel to produce these in many countries across Africa and importing components is not only costly but produces unsuitable hardware for the harsh environments and lifestyles in which they will be used.[1] 3D printing addresses many of the challenges precluding access to prosthetics in rural Africa by overcoming a lack of resource, insufficient funds and poor infrastructure.

In South Africa, 3D printing is being used widely in the medical space, from creating a jaw implant for reconstructive facial surgery, to designing prosthetic limbs for amputees. As many of the population are without medical insurance, the cost of such medical devices can be prohibitively expensive but 3D printing can make these items more affordable. For example, a traditional prosthetic leg in Gambia, a country where the average annual wage is $380, can cost around $530.[2] Even in its infancy, 3D printing can cut those costs by more than 90%. A number of African based designers have also come up with low-cost 3D printers – one Togolese entrepreneur has even designed one out of e-waste that will set you back a mere $100. [3]

In Kenya, one organisation is creating customised prosthetics that are not only durable enough to withstand the extreme temperatures but cost only $50 to produce. The same organisation is pioneering the use of a multi-coloured 3D printing device that matches a patient’s skin colour to the prosthetic as much as possible, thus making hardware that is both affordable and fit for purpose. [4]

This technology is also reaching those previously inaccessible due to poor infrastructure or war. An organisation saw the need for prosthetics in remote areas of war-torn Sudan and brought in a 3D printer to solve the problem. Once the printer was set up, blueprints were installed and locals were taught how to use the technology. The organisation was able to ensure the project was therefore sustainable and able to continue to help amputees in the community after the founders left. [5]

While 3D printing offers many opportunities, there are however still some fundamental infrastructure difficulties that prevent this technology from taking Africa by storm and need urgently to be addressed as part of creating the ecosystem needed behind sustainable diversified economies.

Firstly, access to energy is vital. Even though some printers have been designed to cope with interrupted supplies of energy there still needs to be an adequate supply to run the printer. The complexities of achieving universal access to energy are discussed in PwC’s ‘Electricity beyond the grid’.

Secondly, connectivity is important if users want to take advantage of open-source designs or require assistance from others in modifying their blueprint. Presently only 19% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa are connected to the internet. The PwC publication ‘Connecting the world’ lays out the transformative properties of connectivity and why it is so important to enable new economic opportunities and disruptive growth.

Ultimately, 3D printing is a technology to watch. PwC’s recent publication ‘Tech breakthroughs megatrend: how to prepare for its impact’ lists 3D printing as one of the eight emerging technologies you absolutely need to consider. It opens exciting opportunities to leap-frog existing technologies and offer vital services to many marginalised communities in Africa at a fraction of the cost. We are excited to see what other ways this technology can be used and how it can work together with other emerging technologies to overcome the unique challenges that Africa faces.

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[1] http://www.oandp.org/publications/resident/pdf/DevelopingCountries.pdf

[2] https://givenlimb.org/legs-4-africa-provide-1000-prosthetic-limbs-amputees-west-africa/

[3] http://www.thisisafricaonline.com/News/A-3D-revolution-in-Africa?ct=true

[4] http://3dprintingindustry.com/news/3d-lifeprints-reaches-africas-first-3d-printed-prosthetic-hands-leg-covers-50619/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDYFMgrjeLg

Joel Segal, Partner, Chair of Africa Business Group
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Juliet Phillips| PwC Consulting
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Comments

Very cool

Very resourceful article

3D printing is going to make a real difference. Can't wait to see what all the applications are in a few years time.

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