Humanitarian Aid through 3D Printing

Eric James and his team from Field Ready use modern 3D printing technology for their humanitarian aid work all around the globe. By printing required items and objects right in the disaster areas, they want to create a more efficient, cheaper and sustainable way of helping.

drupa blog article about humanitarian aid

In 2015, Nepal was hit by one of the worst earthquakes in this region so far. Nearly 9,000 people died, around 22,000 were injured and over 3 million became homeless. Aid and rescue teams from all over the world came to Nepal and tried their best to help. With a suddenly outage in one of the medical centres, the situation got even worse. As the broken item, an electrical socket, was made in Italy, and worst of all no longer produced, it seemed impossible to solve this major problem. A solution was provided by the team from Field Ready, who rebuilt the item with a 3D printer. A new and highly innovative field of printing technology for humanitarian aid was opened up.

3D-Printed Help around the Globe

Since their first deployment, the 25-strong team from Field Ready offered their services in Nepal, South Sudan, the South Pacific, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Haiti, the United States and the Virgin Island. According to Eric James, the co-founder and director of the organisation, a major problem of humanitarian aid is to set up efficient supply chains. As probably everyone can imagine, it’s very difficult to establish stable supply support in disaster areas. James himself has been an aid worker since the 1990s and came up with the idea in 2012. Inspired by new trends and technologies from Silicon Valley, he thought about a way to combine his experience in humanitarian aid with a technology to overcome the supply chain obstacles. So, with Field Ready, he brought together the newest developments in the printing industry and a great team of experts with rescue expertise, engineering knowledge and healthcare proficiencies.

“[We] brought a great team together and we’ve been working for about five years now on how to bring a transformation to this particular problem, parts of that is with technology, parts of that is getting people to think in different ways around local manufacturing.”

When the team arrives in a disaster area, they first have to check the local manufacturing capabilities and inventories and calculate needs-assessments. With a good plan, an effective structure and the possibilities of 3D printing, the team is able to reduce the waiting time for missing parts and help to improve the situation faster than with traditional supply chains. Possible objects are those with a simple structure and form such as disposable tweezers and kidney trays, but also more complex items like otoscopes and umbilical cord clamps.

“Probably the most impactful one was a really simple wrist brace […]. We just printed out a flat shape in PLA and if you put that in hot water it becomes malleable and you can form it to exactly fit a patient. […] So, we ended up making a tonne of those, and to print it out of PLA, a flat shape, it didn’t take very long, the whole thing costs about $2”

says co-founder Abi Bush.

Sustainable Humanitarian Aid through Knowledge Transfer

The aid organisation also cooperates with locals and helps to realize their own projects. In Nepal, for example, they supported a local entrepreneur who invented a biomass cook stove and worked on it for over ten years. The innovative design helps to maintain the oxygen flow and therefore improves the air quality in homes. For a government contract, he had to adjust his design a little bit, but although he knew how, he had no access to manufacturing to realize it. So, the team of Field Ready helped him create a CAD model from which they printed a final model.

“We gave the 3D print to the sand casting factory, they made a prototype in metal, we got it tested at one of the testing facilities and it passed the test. Madhukar then got a contract for 210,000 cook stoves,”

Bush remembers. In the end, it was only a single print that made a huge win for thousands of homes and lives.

The team’s goal is also to support the local market. They’re always trying to produce the items as cheap as possible to enable an easier replication. Furthermore, they primarily use local materials and resources to strengthen local economy. For James and his crew it is absurd to import bits of equipment from the other end of the world, when there are local alternatives. Especially when they can pass on skills to locals and other aid agencies to create a sustainability effect.

It’s because of this mind-set why Ben Britton, Innovation Advisor, is still in Nepal, leading a six-strong technical staff to develop smarter and cheaper ways of providing humanitarian aid. They even helped to build up the Nepal Innovation Lab in Kathmandu Valley.

3D Printing in the Field

As the name suggests, the main effort of the team is to create solutions in the field. Of course, it would be sometimes more efficient to use higher quality materials and resources, but it wouldn’t benefit the people in the long run. The team for sustainable solutions, innovative designs and local materials. And the thing with crises is that they will always keep happening, so their work will hopefully go on.


Do you know others examples of printing supports humanitarian aid? Let us know in the comment section!

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