3D printing vs sanitation and shelter

Take a look at how Oxfam and other NGO’s are using 3D printing as an innovative humanitarian tool!


Oxfam is already printing taps in the Middle East, and is considering printing emergency housing. But what are the cost and the caveats of this new technology?

3D printing has been billed the third industrial revolution and has already proved useful for development. The first printed prosthetic limbs are helping victims of conflict to regain their independence, while scientists are working on bioprintingmethods which could soon see the first ever printed human heart used to help save a life.

Project Daniel in South Sudan has shown the potential of 3D printing for international development organisations working in healthcare, but what other uses could it have for professionals working in the field?

Oxfam is already trialling 3D printing in its Lebanon office as part of efforts to improve sanitation across the country. The charity was donated a 3D printer by the company iMakr, and has used it to build parts of taps and faucets, as well as replacing missing parts of British sanitation kits imported to the region.

“We have an engineer there who is trying out different designs. Mostly it is around handwashing devices. We want to make it easy for people to wash their hands – that’s the type of thing that we are trying,” explains Andy Bastable, Oxfam’s head of water and sanitation.

“We have problems when we have got British fittings and we need to replace it [overseas]. In the the future, we think we could just make them. I think this is an idea that will get stronger, and that will be able to make larger and larger things. We think that 3D printing could be part of the future, supplying [us] in an emergency with lots of different bits of kit.”

Oxfam is also considering how 3D printing might help it develop emergency shelters. Gilles Retsin, co-founder of Softkill Design, is one of the first designers working on 3D printed housing in the UK. “There is quite a lot of interest in it from people involved in emergency housing and crisis housing. They come from the view that it might be possible to print something very quickly in an unexpected site without the need for shipping anything. We would transport a printer and then we would use the materials on the site, such as sand,” he says.

Although 3D printing is unlikely to replace tent villages as an immediate source of shelter for communities in crisis – following conflict or extreme weather, for example – it may have other uses. As it takes just 24 hours to build a set of rooms using local materials fed into a printer, it may have a useful function as a way to quickly and cheaply build medium-term accommodation during the rebuilding process.

It also boasts the great benefit of allowing NGOs and their staff to design bespoke products for their use. This means designs can be altered to take into account the materials available on site, but also the specific religious or cultural needs of a community.

Martin Cottingham, advocacy manager at Islamic Relief, says: “It’s important to deliver shelter as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible in an emergency, but cultural sensitivity is also important. It’s no good having shelters that people don’t want to use because nobody has thought about the cultural dimension – the typical arrangements for sleeping, cooking and washing in the communities affected.” He concludes that 3D printing technology would be useful to the charity if it allowed this flexibility, while not resulting in a significant additional cost per unit.

For development organisations, it’s essential that 3D printing helps to support efforts to build local economies, rather than replace local tradesmanship in designing and building the tools that NGOs need to use in their work.

Mario Flores, director of field operations, disaster risk reduction and response atHabitat for Humanity International, said this would be the key test for 3D printing – along with how much money it could save, how culturally appropriate the end products are and how well those products compare to similar, locally-made alternatives. “Until this and other technologies can demonstrate positive outcomes in each of these litmus tests, they cannot be considered a solution at scale for humanitarian crises,” Flores says.

As the technology matures and becomes cheaper and simpler to operate, development professionals working across the specialisms – from healthcare, to sanitation, to emergency housing – will be able to experiment with its applications more easily. However, some are more sceptical about the prospect of new technology solving what are longstanding and very difficult challenges for NGOs and governments dealing with crises.

“There is a lot of technology innovation, targeting crisis application where there are very large budgets available and pressure to solve problems quickly and visibly,” says Maggie Stephenson, an adviser to UN Habitat. “There is a saying in relation to housing that you shouldn’t experiment on people who have no choice. Experiments in housing are expensive and last a long time, even if they are in emergency shelter.”

Stephenson says development professionals should always remain “aware that the pioneers of this technique, like the pioneers of any technique, are always the most enthusiastic about its potential”.

by  | Tuesday 5 August 2014 

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