Freedom of Design: How Free-D is using 3D printing to empower women

One UK organisation is helping disadvantaged women in India to gain high-value digital careers in the jewellery industry. Deputy Group Editor, Laura Griffiths, speaks to the founders about how they’re using 3D printing to break the cycle. 

According to the latest statistics from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), for every 1,000 people in the world, there are 5.4 people living in modern slavery. Over 70% are women. But “knowledge is power” and London-based organisation, Free-D wants to use 3D technologies to empower women from at-risk backgrounds by giving them the opportunity to gain sought-after skills which lead to secure, high-value employment.

The aptly named, Free-D was founded by Katherine Prescott and Siavash Mahdavi who first met at software start-up, Within, later acquired by Autodesk. With over two decades of experience in the 3D printing industry working across medical, aerospace, automotive and footwear, they started thinking more about the technology; how it’s taught, how often it’s those who have eschewed traditional training routes that just click with 3D, and how it has the potential to be used for good. Following conversations with NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisation) working within social violence, they had a theory – to create a STEM-focused academy that could help women at-risk to learn valuable skills and open them up to entirely new careers and opportunities. Could 3D printing be the key to breaking the cycle?

“One of the biggest challenges is, once women are rescued from an exploitative or dangerous situation, such as trafficking, they are not given many opportunities to rebuild their lives in a way that would lead to high-value employment and financial independence. Quite often their only opportunities are to learn skills in industries open to exploitation, low salaries and job instability, such as the garment industry or the service industry,” Sia told TCT. “Yet many of these women haven’t had the opportunity to flex their brain or be creative, it is assumed they aren’t capable to learn more advanced skills.”

Katherine added: “3D printing expertise, especially in countries like India, is sought-after. One of the problems I’ve heard from different employers is that they cannot easily find people with the skills needed to make the most of the technology. This skills gap means employers can spend up to two years training staff for them to get headhunted by other firms. If we can provide consultants who already have the experience and skills needed, they could be highly in-demand. Free-D is focused on making sure that the skills taught are high-end, with a comprehensive understanding from end-to-end of the design and manufacturing process.”

To pilot the project they travelled to India, a country with an estimated total of 14 million women living in slavery and equally alarming rehabilitation rates. With laptops and a desktop 3D printer donated by early supporter PrintLab in tow, they set out to Mumbai in January 2017 where the team met with several NGOs to find out if their theory would actually work. An initial 12-month pilot program was set up with a group of 11 women, working with local partners including Kshamata, an organisation which supports women rescued from exploitation, local jewellery school IIGJ, and 3D printer distributor, printOmake, to create a bespoke curriculum focused on the jewellery industry.

The gems and jewellery market is already one of India’s fastest growing sectors and expected to be worth 100 billion USD by 2025. The jewellery industry itself is also one of the largest adopters of 3D technologies, from lost wax casting applications to precious metals, and the demand for skilled employees is high. Mumbai, specifically, is also home to one of India’s largest 3D printing service providers, Imaginarium, who partnered with Free-D to provide manufacturing and training support for the program. With India’s heritage in jewellery manufacturing and increasing technological advancements, Kamlesh Parekh, Director at Imaginarium, says jewellery was the, “natural choice for a program that aims at providing long-term employment.”

Katherine continued: “Early on during training, we found that exercises based around jewellery was something the women could relate to and get creative with. That creativity was excellent as a motivator for students to keep persevering through mastering more difficult topics. We don’t want to limit the Free-D students to only work in one field, but we felt like jewellery was a really good place to start.”

The team started with the basics, thinking about how things are made and the fundamental mathematical principles behind working in 3D such as placing shapes onto a build platform and experimenting with scale. Using CAD software such as Meshmixer, Rhino and Magics, the students were taken through the design thinking process to create their own jewellery projects, getting to grips with design, support structure generation, selecting the best printing method, prototyping and post-processing. Their designs were initially printed using a plastic extrusion-based process before advancing to more complex processes like stereolithography, which would ultimately be used to prepare models for lost wax casting. Through various modules and holistic training, not only in 3D technologies but also language and presentation skills, the goal was to have the students come away with an understanding of the different roles within the product design process with a view to future employment.

“I think in general, 3D printing differentiates itself from other STEM subjects,” Sia commented. “You are able to design something, to think something up in your head and within a matter of hours it physically exists. The power you feel, the confidence you gain in saying ‘I thought of something and now it’s here’, after working in the industry for a long time, you can forget the almost magical side of using the technology. That’s something we’re also exploring, to see whether 3D printing itself can actually be empowering and therapeutic.”

The first stage of the pilot programme has just reached completion with each of the students presenting their projects to prospective employers. Ten were offered placements with Imaginarium and Fab Jewels, a huge success for the pilot but the impact spans much further. Many of the students said the course, though challenging, had given them not only a new skillset but more confidence in themselves and new perspectives on working life. Some are now planning on furthering their CAD education and finding skilled work in the jewellery industry, others have ambitions to start their own creative side projects. One student, Sara* has dreams of launching her own business to help other people from disadvantaged areas.

Sara commented: “I’m interested to learn more about CAD and design and [gain] more knowledge about manufacturing so that in the future I can open my own operation in a place not very developed, where people really need help. What I have gone through in my childhood, I don’t want anyone else to go through that. I want them to know about their rights, I didn’t know about mine. I want to help children, so they have opportunities that I missed out on. I want to become a role model.”

Following the success of the pilot, the plan is to turn the program into a repeatable model that can support even more women. Initially, a range inspired by the students will be manufactured by Imaginarium and available to buy from Free-D and other stockists. Katherine hopes the profits can be used to setup a new manufacturing and training facility so that brands and retailers who care about an ethical supply chain can start making orders for jewellery this year, with pilot graduates working directly on orders or as CAD and manufacturing consultants. Free-D are openly looking for partners to support them in setting up their facility and helping them develop the curriculum to be at the cutting edge of the technology.

Katherine concluded: “We’ve already learned so much from our pilot. In the future, I don’t see why we couldn’t set up centres all over India or anywhere there is demand for 3D printing skills. Free-D so far has benefitted from support from a small but dedicated group of pilot partners. To take this program to the next level, it would be great to hear from potential partner companies or individuals looking to support the cause by providing the technology, tools and expertise required to make the industry as a whole more accessible.”

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