The rise of 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, has been a major driver of the growth of industries in a global environment where automation is becoming inevitable.
With this technology, a company could manufacture a whole car in one place or build an entire mansion, scrapping the labour-intensive requirements of most physical projects.
From food, medical equipment, aircraft spare parts, smartphones, body organs, furniture and clothing, 3D printing can be applied at almost any sphere of life to help manufacturers cut costs, boost production volumes and enhance quality of products.
Though the 3D printing industry is still at its infancy in Kenya, there has been notable growth in the use of the innovation to solve industrial challenges, especially in maintaining a smooth cash flow in a period of commercial disruption.
Local experts are betting on the technology to help mould the future of industries in the country, by offering faster, low-cost and high quality production of general equipment that are bought for millions of shillings from developed countries.
"Because well designed prototypes can be accessed for free online, and the cost of materials is affordable, now is the time to use this opportunity to quickly adapt and create new products that can be used to cushion Kenyans from the current wave of job losses," Mehul Shah, chief executive of 3D firm UltraRed Technologies based on Limuru Road in Nairobi told Digital Business.
In the past four years, his company has been involved in the business of rapid prototyping, product design, computer aided engineering and 3D printing for clients.
Rapid prototyping is a method used to quickly create a scale model of a part or finished product, using a computer-aided design (CAD) software. Manufacturing of the part is mainly done with 3D printing or additive layer manufacturing technology.
"Product design is all about understanding the best possible way to solve a problem and approaching it from a wide a lens. We believe that there are countless ways to solve problems and design challenges. We just need to find the combination that works," he says.
Most clients want designs that fit with lifestyle, aesthetics, function and form, and that has motivated him to come up with designs for plastic parts, electronics and sheet metal.
"Optimising the design of products using feedback from customers and an iterative design approach gives birth to true innovation."
Mr Shah reveals that the firm is currently working closely with doctors and anesthetists in Kenya to test and approve 3D printed ventilator splitters that can be used in the fight against Covid-19.
Emmanuel Mutio, founder of Westlands-based 3D printing firm Nanodrex, says the 25-year-old technology is available on open source platforms and machines can read prototypes from any software.
Free 3D software available online includes AutoCAD, 3D Slash, SketchUp, Blender, Tinkercad, NanoCAD, LibreCad, OpenSCAD, Sculprits and MakeHuman.
"The use of 3D printing in manufacturing is extremely wide. You can customise designs for various industrial needs. Before doctors separate co-joined twins, they have to create 3D designs first to know where to cut,” says Mr Mutio who founded his company in 2015.
"In reconstructive surgery, in the replacement of fractured or broken bones, 3D prototypes are created to enhance accuracy. In the motoring industry, most parts are 3D-printed."
Mr Shah says since the technology relies on simple tools, more players in the field should be inspired to help drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Kenya, especially in manufacturing, where advanced automation for better quality products is in high demand as business leaders seek for tech-based ways of surviving in the 'new normal.'
Does 3D printing require you to be a super designer on the computer to get a state-of-the-art printed product?
"It helps to be a good 3D designer but you do not have to. You don't even need expensive tools or exotic material. You can customise to suit any demand and start producing immediately," Mr Shah reveals.
Flexibility, he says, is a great value provided by the printers.
"One day you can be making engine parts, the next day footwear and the next you could be designing a model for doctors to perform surgeries. You can even print pizza for your family," he notes.
Printing mechanical parts for medical equipment is another crucial use of 3D printing.
"Stethoscopes, parts for oxygen concentrators, air machines, dialysis machines, insulin pumps, sanitiser containers and even the small tools such as tweezers can be printed," he notes.
Depending on the utility and mode of the machine, Mr Mutio says a 3D printing machine can cost as low as Sh30,000 or as high as Sh1 million, and thus can be used to boost affordability of expensive machines when produced locally.
At a time when many large-scale manufacturers around the world are shifting their approach to manufacturing various parts and equipment, small-scale producers are leading in creating prototypes and placing them online for anybody with a 3D machine to access them for free.
Other 3D firms committed to the task of revolutionising manufacturing in Kenya are Kisumu's Kijenzi and Nairobi's Kuunda 3D.
However, more awareness on the dynamics of the technology will be needed to propel Silicon Savannah to greater heights on matters manufacturing.
Kenya, despite being regarded as the technology powerhouse of Africa, is still miles behind South Africa in the mass adoption of 3D printing technology.