Could 3D printing help African businesses compete globally?

Phil Muncaster

Wednesday 15 March 2017

African businesses, communities and healthcare providers are already using 3D printing in innovative ways, but there’s an opportunity to go even further and drive growth in high-value manufacturing across the continent. Here’s how.

Set to soar

Everyone’s talking about 3D printing. It might have been around since the 1980s, but only in recent years has additive manufacturing really hit the mainstream. The possibilities are seemingly endless – it’s being used to make everything from human prosthetics and aircraft parts to home improvement tools and drones.

There are several 3D printing technologies used today, but most take a digital 3D model and fabricate a physical object layer by layer. By so doing, organisations can rapidly accelerate the prototyping and development of products at a relatively low cost, without sacrificing precision and quality. The opportunities for African entrepreneurs and larger organisations are obvious.

It’s no surprise that the market is soaring – worldwide spending on 3D printing is set to exceed $35 billion by 2020, according to IDC. That’s more than double the $15.9 billion forecast for 2016 and represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 24 per cent over the 2015-20 period. Predictions for Africa alone are hard to come by, although the MEA region will see spending reach $1.3 billion by 2019. What’s more, a CAGR of 30.8 per cent over 2015-19 will surpass global growth.

Why Africa? Why now?

If Africa is historically slow at adopting cutting-edge technologies, 3D printing is the outlier. It represents a huge opportunity for the continent to leapfrog its technology gulf and, in so doing, enter a new age of industrial productivity. According to Harvard Kennedy School professor Calestous Juma, it’s all down to ease of use: printers themselves are portable and user-friendly, the associated software is open-source – and therefore freely available – and 3D printing has a smaller environmental impact than traditional manufacturing. It also offers users the chance to become innovative producers, or “highly creative communities of creators”.

Perhaps most importantly, 3D printing allows African businesses to reduce their reliance on imported materials. Entrepreneurs in particular can benefit from building their own products in-house, where the process is faster, more efficient and cheaper.

That self-sufficiency is also important in another way. As China transitions to a high-value, high-skill manufacturing giant, African workers are expected to take those jobs lower down the value chain. But 3D printing and digital manufacturing could disrupt this model. According to Hailemichael Teshome Demissie, senior research fellow at the African Centre for Technology Studies, that’s bad news for Africa.

“The insourcing boom in developed countries should be disquieting for developing countries awaiting their manufacturing moment: it is a trend that marks the beginning of a reversal of the migration of jobs to low-wage regions.”

Africa needs to grasp the opportunity to grow its own 3D printing industry. In doing so, it can jump the gap straight to high-value manufacturing to rival more developed regions. The early signs are good: there are already many examples of successful local projects.

Kickstarting success

The world’s first 3D printer made entirely from recycled materials was built in Togo. In its capital, Lomé, the Woelab Community hopes to encourage children into its education programme.

“We think and hope that as young people join the programme they’ll get involved in ongoing research and start projects of their own,” says executive director Dodji Koffi Honou. “And new ideas will arise that are useful for our society.”

There are many more examples. Doctors at South Africa’s Kimberley Hospital Complex performed the country’s first 3D printed jaw bone implantation, while the Vanderbilt University in Zambia uses a 3D printed device to diagnose and fight malaria.

What next?

The opportunities are huge for African businesses, but it won’t be easy. Much will depend on the level of government support and funding. Here are just a few things that must happen for the 3D printing industry to boom (and succeed) in Africa:

– 3D printing in school curricula.

– Support startups working with the technology.

– Bring together academia, government, non-profits and others to create the right environment for innovation.

– Develop new 3D printing policies and frameworks at government level.

Africa has the opportunity to capitalise on the benefits 3D printing is already bringing to businesses. However, it must strike now while the technology is burgeoning. As long as there’s an absence of collaboration at regional and continental levels, innovation will remain restricted to isolated pockets.