Solar-powered 3D printers are giving near-instant disaster relief to underdeveloped communities



Michigan Technological University Professor, Joshua Pearce, has invented the first mobile, solar-powered 3D printer, offering his design free and open-source in the interest of helping off-grid developing economies. By organizing a wide selection of printable items on his website—including solar cookers, arm-braces, breast pumps, stethoscopes, waterwheels and irrigation sprinklers—nonprofits and other organizations are able to put his technology towards good use. Most notably, this technology may prove essential in sustaining off-grid communities, as explained by Motherboard.

For example, nonprofit Field Ready’s Eric James and Dara Dotz are currently on project in Haiti, 3D printing medical supplies and gearing up to supplying small agricultural tools.

In a video on Field Ready’s website, Dotz explains that, “They can now print an umbilical cord clip in less than eight minutes.”

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This is in contrast to current supply chains for humanitarian aid, which James contends, “…take a very long time, even to get the most basic items.…We realize that some of the new technologies like 3D printing can actually be moved out to the field. Having the ability to actually manufacture or to make items directly on site can really be transformative.” Field Ready is currently developing 3D-printable prosthetic limbs.

Many communities that operate without electricity are beholden to larger manufacturing chains, and lack the ability to customize their imported products to suit their community’s specific needs.

According to Dotz, “What we can now do, is they can send us the problem in, say, America or England, and our engineers can actually create the cad file, and email them the file, which basically means we can cut the time into 1/10th.” The only issue with this approach, is that underdeveloped communities also often lack a reliable internet source, making it difficult to download printable designs on short notice. Dotz hopes to combat this issue by training community members in design, allowing for a greater autonomy.

By allowing these communities to design their own products, fewer sustainable development projects will need to swoop in from the outside. Despite their intention to help, outsider projects often fail to organize their efforts around the communities’ cultural and environmental needs. As James explains, “There will always be things on the ground, that we couldn’t have anticipated.” These are specifications that often require an adept knowledge of the communities’ inner-workings—in specific, the knowledge gained from actually having lived there.

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Though printer filament still needs to be provided by supporting organizations, companies like the Ethical Filament Foundation and Plastic Bank are developing techniques to convert plastic waste into printable material. This strategy is useful in two ways: developing well-needed products from internal resources, and reducing the crippling state of pollution.

3D printers are also becoming an increasingly viable option for disaster relief efforts. An innovative version of the solar-powered 3D printer is designed to pack up into a suitcase. Pearce explains, “Say you are in the Peace Corps going to an off-grid community.…You could put your clothes in a backpack and take this printer in your suitcase. It’s a mobile manufacturing facility that can make whatever you and the community need or value. It has nearly unlimited flexibility.” In this way, the solar-powered 3D printers act like small mobile manufacturing plants.

Aside from the aid that these printers can provide to developing communities, I look forward to seeing how they might impact other breeds of off-grid society—an increasingly popular lifestyle amongst neo-bohemians. The autonomy of 3D printing gives even more reason for those who reject society to remain isolated for longer periods of time—a huge step-forward in off-grid culture. And yet, when it isn’t necessary to keep one foot grounded in mainstream society, one must keep a close eye on how far the new community drifts.

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Sources: – Images by Kid Mob