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Can 3D printing benefit resource-challenged communities?

Posting in Science

Here at SmartPlanet, we've covered 3D printing from a lot of angles, from how it may affect large-scale manufacturing efforts and global supply chains to the many types of objects being made (guns, miniature doppelgängers of ourselves). It's a topic that is very trendy and potentially disruptive. One area that's rarely been discussed in any venue, though, is how 3D printing might improve lives in resource-challenged parts of the world.

A piece in November 3-9 issue of The Economist looked at the winners of a competition called the 3D4D challenge, a group of University of Washington students who seek to take their $100,000 prize and create a startup to make toilets and rainwater collection vessels using 3D printing.

The process of 3D printing consists of layering melted plastic, via a mechanical extruder, in a specific pattern so that the molten material builds up into a three dimensional object. (See the photo above for an example.)

The group of students, Matthew Rogge, Bethany Weeks, and Brandon Bowman, will partner with a non-profit organization called Water for Humans, and the two entities will enlist local owners of small businesses in emerging market nations to print the toilets and rainwater collectors. The software used will be open source. The Economist reports that a trial program is about to begin in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Still, the price of producing objects to gather rainwater or human waste via 3D printing might not be as inexpensive as using some of the objects currently in use...say, buckets. If the price of 3D printing machines continues to drop as their popularity rises around the world, getting life-improving products like toilets and rainwater collectors to parts of the globe that need them urgently could get a whole lot easier -- via a process that's potentially local, instant, and on demand.

Image: kakissel/Flickr

— By on November 8, 2012, 11:32 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure