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Technology Planning and Analysis

AB3D: An African 3D printer made from eWaste

Despite their huge potential, 3D printers have not taken off in Africa. However two individuals looking to make an impact in this area are building a low cost 3D printer that uses eWaste.

Roy Ombatti and Karl Heinz Samenjo, from Kenya, have come up with a low cost 3D printer which they say will change the landscape in Africa. And it only cost them around US$150 to build it.

“We wanted a printer that would be robust and commercially viable and sustainable within the African context. Plus it had to be very affordable to make 3D printing accessible to everyone. Those were the main drivers behind building our own printers,” Samenjo told IDG Connect.

“What makes ours unique is that it is assembled from electronic waste with each printer being unique depending on the type of electronic waste parts you harvest,” he added.

The 3D printer was a big hit during the first ever National Innovation Forum held in March this year in Nairobi. Their stand was full of interested onlookers who wanted to witness the machine in action.

But for most of the continent, the 3D printing business does not attract much attention. So why now?

The company sees the 3D printing as an answer to some unique struggles in the continent. Samenjo said that the technology, for example, can be used to model shoes for those people affected by jiggers where normal shoes might not be a comfortable option.

Other practical use of the technology would be to produce hardware components that would otherwise be imported at a higher cost. The printer can also produce low cost toys for children in the rural areas in Kenya and the rest of Africa.

But the forefront advantage of the printer is the use of e-waste in its creation. In a country that does not have a comprehensive e-waste programme, this is a welcome move.

“The printers are assembled using specific electronic parts mainly from old printers, scanners, photocopiers and CPUs. The parts that are harvested from the electronic waste include motors, smooth rods, wires, pulleys, copper wire, belts, bushings and power supplies,” Samenjo told us.

“Once the parts are harvested, they are sorted according to size so as to have the parts as identical as possible. The smooth rods for all the axes are measured and the dimensions are inserted into our unique parametric design program that then calculates and designs the printer accordingly,” Samenjo said.

He said that not all 3D printers produced have the same size due to the different materials they use to create the product.

The X, Y and Z dimensions in the printer can be adjusted depending on what kind of product is being produced by the printer.

They then use open source software to render designs and control the 3D printer.

For now the company is being fostered under TechForTrade, a body based in the UK looking to use technology to improve lives in developing nations.

“Our vision is to be the one-stop-shop for all of one’s 3D Printing and rapid prototyping needs; from sale of printers and 3D printing filament, 3D printing services, including designing as well as training on the same,” Samenjo anticipates.

“We hope to get our printers to every school in Kenya for them to be used as a teaching tool and through this we will create jobs, alleviate poverty as well as clean up the environment.”

Samenjo believes that the continent still has potential for hardware technology.

“Hardware technology in Kenya is very much at its conception stage though with immense growth potential. There exists a number of vibrant innovation hubs and maker spaces in Kenya and Africa at large where makers and creatives can be actively involved in hardware technology and design,” Samenjo said.

Fablab, an innovation space hosted at the University of Nairobi, offers a chance for hardware enthusiasts to engage and build exciting products. Gearbox in Nairobi’s iHub is well known as the cradle of the famous BRCK, internet and power backup product that has taken the world by storm.

“For hardware technology to live up to its full potential, we need to bridge the gap between the informal and formal sectors,” he added. “The engineers with the classroom knowledge and theoretical know-how need to collaborate with the informal sector which relies on experience and skills development to help develop hardware technology to its full capacity. If this happens, the hardware design industry will be full of surprises.”

He denoted that the current education system that only drives students to get into the corporate world is robbing the continent of the best brains especially in hardware technology.

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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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