Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Our four-strong research team are at the tail end of our pilot project. The overall aim of the research was that of delivering a ‘proof of concept’ of the use of 3D printing (3DP) techniques in a humanitarian context and, specifically, in relation to the delivery of Water, Sanitation and Hygiene services.

Thus, we were extremely pleased to have confirmed that the benefits 3DP technology that are found in the commercial (‘for profit’) context are equally applicable to the logistic preparation and response to disasters and in development operations. For example, the pilot demonstrated a reduction in lead times from 4-12 weeks (based on the survey of parts recently supplied to Oxfam Kenya) to a maximum of 48 hours. The pilot also demonstrated how it was possible to avoid nugatory ‘just in case’ transport and warehousing, by manufacturing locally to meet an identified need. In addition, the Oxfam (and other NGO) staff who engaged with the research now have a far greater understanding of the benefits and limitations of the use of 3DP, and this can be integrated into their forward planning.

The project came across a few obstacles but, fortunately, most were easily worked around with little disruption to the overall aim. Furthermore, these challenges actually served as useful lessons that we can action in the next phase. Examples include ensuring that the equipment is sufficiently robust to overcome an intermittent power supply and the impact of environmental conditions (temperature, weather, dust, etc). The size of the components that could be physically produced was also constrained by the printer size. However, now that the team are more familiar with the generic requirements in this regard, an appropriately sized printer will be used in future.

Moving forward, the project is now in the process of applying for further grants to extend the research over a period of three years. The first half of Phase one will focus on building a library of 3DP software models, with the second half developing protocols and training material (manuals, online teaching programs etc). Phase two will be focussed on testing the assets and the proposed ‘Hub and Spoke’ model in a benign environment such as a South Pacific nation, before Phase three which will take the same approach in a more challenging environment such as South Sudan. By then it is hoped that the core processes will be firmly understood and practiced, and that the focus can be on implementing these in a less than ideal context.

Within the proposed organizational model, the ‘hub’ will include experts in industrial design and testing as well as in the actual operation of the 3DP equipment. The ‘spoke’ will be located at a suitable logistic hub and will employ trained operators who are both able to identify emerging requirements as well as conducting local testing of the items that have been printed. In the longer term, it is envisaged that future hubs could well be based around regional Universities (for example one based in Kenya supporting East Africa and one based in Fiji supporting the Pacific Region) that would both provide an improved cultural understanding of the requirements and potential solutions to emerging requirements as well as minimising the length of the spokes within the organisational model.

A further promising research avenue is that of the use of recycled items (such as plastics, wood or building materials) as the source material for the 3DP process, with the outputs including, for example, temporary housing/shelters which are now able to be constructed using macro-level printers that are emerging onto te market.

In principle, therefore, there is no reason why the use of 3D printers could not become more common in a humanitarian context, however the concern is to ensure that the parts produced by this technique are truly ‘fit for purpose’ and thus can be integrated into an existing piece of equipment etc in a safe and secure way – hence the proposed hub-and-spoke model.

In finalizing this blog, we would particularly like to thank both our funding partners (the HIF, HK Logistics, RedR Australia and Griffith University), and Oxfam GB without whose wholehearted support this pilot research would have failed to meet its objectives.  Indeed, perhaps the most important ‘learning point’ from the whole project was the extent to which it was essential to work with our field colleagues and learn from the breadth of their experience in developing a sustainable, efficient and effective way forward.

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