Emerging markets can use the technology to leapfrog development stages to go straight to local, high-tech production.
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On its surface, 3-D printing seems like a failed gamble. Technologists once envisioned that it would open a world of opportunity: Simply input the design, spool up the 3-D printer, and sit back to watch as your imagination became plastic. However, due to a range of economic and practical factors, 3-D printing has yet to find the widespread successes that some may have hoped for.
Still, it’s too early to call 3-D printing a failed technology. Instead, 3-D printing offers some unique opportunities for entrepreneurs interested in expanding into emerging markets. To succeed, however, startups will have to pivot to more specialized uses — such as printing apartments to address rising housing demand or prosthetic limbs for amputees.
The flaws of consumer 3-D printers.
For consumers, avoiding 3-D printers is a logical decision. They’re tricky, temperamental machines which require a lot of special knowledge and care — and more time and money than the average person can afford. Even hobbyists enroll in shared makerspaces rather than buying their own machine.
Consider how much work it takes to effectively use a 3-D printer. A team at Mashable experimented with 3-D printing — to their dismay. First, the printer was finicky about what types of files it accepted; the team had to convert their design into several file formats before finding the right one. Next, the device wasn’t exactly forgiving; any mistakes required an immediate do-over, which wasted plastic, time, and electricity. Six attempts and 24 hours later, the team finally gave up.
The challenges of emerging markets.
But for all its annoyances, 3-D printing does have promise for emerging markets — which might seem counterintuitive. After all, if richer nations reject 3-D printers, why would it be any different in less prosperous ones?
Yet first impressions are misleading. In emerging markets, 3-D printing technology is expected to become a $4.5 billion industry by 2020, growing by some 37.4 percent between 2014-2020. Most of this growth is expected to take place in India and China.
So what gives? The appeal of 3-D printing lies in its potential to solve several lingering problems common to emerging markets. The most common issue is an infrastructure gap (a lack of roads, medical clinics or schools); by nature, these projects require plenty of capital, time and skilled labor, all of which emerging markets may lack.
As a result, 3-D printing can be a shortcut. Not only does it build durable, workable solutions for far less money — but it is also a form of leapfrogging, where emerging markets can take advantage of exciting new technologies (such as blockchain) while bypassing early stages of development. For example, startup M-Kopa used mobile money payments and home solar power kits to provide decentralized electricity directly to Kenyan households. By doing so, M-Kopa effectively leapfrogged the problem of building an electrical grid — a complex, expensive undertaking for a developing economy.
For emerging markets, 3-D printing is a solution.
In much the same way, 3-D printers can help emerging markets meet entrenched challenges. In China, an emerging market reveling in its newfound prosperity, 3-D printing has been adopted by the housing sector. Domestically, the demand for residential construction is strong–and shows no sign of abating.
McKinsey estimates that by 2025, the nation’s low-income urban households could rise by 56 million, with Shanghai and Beijing accounting for 2.3 million and 2.5 million households respectively. Needless to say, all of these people will need cheap, comfortable units that are efficiently and sustainably built.
Three dimensional printing is the unlikely answer. In April 2014, a team of construction workers assembled ten buildings (each five stories tall) in the southern city of Suzhou, all from 3-D printed parts, and all in a single day’s work. Though these structures, built by Chinese firm Winsun, are meant as a prototype and not a final product, the demonstration was a stunning proof of concept. Costs and time are dramatically reduced; rather than designing and building each structure individually, workers can simply put together prefabricated parts from a kit, or mix-and-match for greater variety.
Moreover, advances in engineering have resulted in materials like fiber-reinforced Ductal, 10 times stronger than concrete with twice the shelf life — and tailor-made for 3-D printers. At some point in the future, it may even be possible to 3-D print sustainable houses: some design agencies are experimenting with upcycling, repurposing waste products into building material, thus lowering costs and reducing the need for landfills.
Though this space is still maturing, competition is already intense. In addition to Winsun, California-based startups Contour Crafting and Apis Cor are also helping to push 3-D printed houses into the mainstream. While both companies continue to focus on domestic applications, the bulk of their growth may well come from emerging markets–a lesson any 3-D printing entrepreneur (or venture capitalist) would do well to note.
3-D printing new limbs.
But it’s not just housing. Many stable, growing emerging markets today were once areas of conflict. Though they’ve come a long way from those dark times, they still grapple with the legacy of war — the most visible, prominent reminder being amputees.
Unfortunately, amputees in emerging markets find that prosthetics are hard to come by — and prosthetists are even rarer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there is a shortage of 40,000 prosthetists in developing economies. Moreover, the cost of a prosthetic is prohibitively expensive: high-end limbs with electronic components (such as microprocessors) can cost up to $150,000, while cheaper pneumatic ones range from $40,000 to $60,000.
Thanks to 3-D printing, however, change may finally be coming. Rather than making difficult journeys to a distant prosthetist clinic, 3-D printers can cheaply and efficiently print limbs. One Stanford pilot program pioneered a replacement knee — for $20. Known as the Jaipur Foot, the limb is a cutting-edge piece of technology that provides amputees an unparalleled level of stability and easy movement–a far cry from the more expensive, less usable prosthetics they may have grown accustomed to.
Further, designs and fittings are much easier. Rather than requiring prolonged stays for multi-day fittings, prosthetists can simply use 3-D scanners and computer-assisted design software (CAD) to tinker with artificial limbs. Moreover, for growing children, designs can easily and quickly be scaled up or tweaked; many schematics are open source files and can be adapted with a click of a mouse.
In emerging markets, there is real opportunity — and hope — for 3-D printing. Though the applications are likely far from what starry-eyed technologists dreamed of only a few short years ago, plenty of people are reaping its benefits. From families who can live in affordable, comfortable homes to survivors of war and famine who can finally work and function again, 3-D printing is a boon to developing economies as they make their way towards prosperity.