Imagine being able to create a three-dimensional solid object at the click of a mouse. Imagine being able to produce replicas of the same object many times over, without having to break a sweat carving it out to the desired shape.
This is the new precision of additive manufacturing, better known to James Kinongu — a pipe joint manufacturer — as 3D (three dimension) printing. It allows objects to be created from the bottom-up by adding material one cross-sectional layer at a time.
Mr Kinongu discovered the value of 3D print technology during a business expo last year and has since designed better pipes that he previously could not find locally. This has made his business of selling pipe joints flourish.
“There were various hindrances in my business as we needed products that were not available in the market. But with 3D printing we are able to put our design ideas and actually print them to our preference,” he says.
Mr Kinongu is one of the people who have approached local 3D printer distributers 3D Nano Limited with an idea, designed it and got it printed out.
The technology which produces tangible objects on a small printer is said to be the future of technological advancements, but its adoption has been slow in Kenya compared to developed countries.
Peter Kamenwa, an IT specialist at 3D Nano, says the 3D technology has attracted much interest from both learning institutions and individuals who have frequented their offices to have products printed out. However, those in manufacturing have shown little interest.
“Our biggest clients are individuals as corporates slack back on this new technology. That’s why we came up with the Youth Techno Business Venture that targets entrepreneurs’ use of the 3D printer to advance their production line,” says Mr Kamenwa.
Additive manufacturing is said to provide the much needed boost in productivity, localising manufacturing and simplifying and shortening supply chains.
The government and institutions of higher learning offering engineering courses have been challenged to make early investment in the 3D printing technology as easy access by students will spur engineering innovations.
“The traditional machinist is going to be replaced by a skilled computer-aided design (CAD) that can generate 3D computer designs to drive the 3D printer,” says Vincent Kaabunga, chairman of the Kenya Chapter of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE).
Last year, Roy Ombatti and Harris Nyali from the University of Nairobi took part in the Innovation Africa competition on 3D printing, a project that they aimed to solve the jigger menace in Kenya by using 3D printing to make customised shoes for people whose feet have been infested by jiggers.
Technical schools such as the Mombasa and Nyeri technical colleges were in the forefront in buying these printers for educational purposes saying the technology has potential to establish a new future for architecture, robotics and structural design students.
“The potential of 3D technologies printers is immense, and making these available to higher institution of learning will have great impact, especially in robotics, manufacturing and architectural engineering,” said Mr Kaabunga.
More interestingly is the use of this technology in agriculture and food production, with claims that it could be used to deliver food to astronauts in the moon.
Although developed countries have applied 3D printing in medicine and reconstructive surgery, the trend has been slow in Africa with only a few companies importing entry level 3D printers in Kenya.
Part of the reason is because of the high cost of the materials used in printing as well as the high cost of the printers. A desktop 3D printer costs between Sh190,000 and Sh400,000 while an industrial machine goes for up to Sh5 million.
But, experts say the technology poses a threat to casual workers as manufacturing processes are going to change, altering labour demands and this could make low-skilled workers redundant in mass manufacturing.
A report by Global Trends 2030 says 3D printing is expected to rejuvenate manufacturing in some advanced countries, with high tech firms likely to employ only a small and select highly skilled labour force.
On the other hand, Mr Kaabunga says juakali artisans, medics and architects will have the capability to exponentially increase their production by simply printing items.
This, says former Information PS Bitange Ndemo, will boost the country’s productivity levels helping alleviate poverty. But he adds that there’s going to be a shift in the knowledge and skills required by the labour force.
Speaking during the Inter-ministerial Conference on Innovation, Science and Technology, Mr Kaabunga said IEEE had began talks with various organisations to finance the setting up of an engineering laboratory in Nairobi with modern equipment, including a state of the art 3D printer to facilitate engineering research and innovations.
The facility, he said, will support collaboration among engineers and promote research.
Although there are concerns about recent reports that 3D technologies could be used to print guns, IEEE Kenya said use of the technology could be controlled through legislation.