Thousands of years ago, the black-smith led a technological leap in sub-Saharan Africa. West Africa Nok Culture, for example, changed from using stone tools to iron around 1500 BC. Imagine an innovative craftsman like this re-emerging in the 21st century equipped with digital technologies.
It’s not Wakanda science fiction. This is the story of a real promise that 3D printing holds for an industrial revolution on the African continent.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a manufacturing process in which a three-dimensional object is built (printed) adding layer after layer of materials to a series of forms. The material can be metal, alloys, plastics or concrete. The size of the 3D printing market was valued to US$13.78 billion in 2020, and is expected to grow to a 21% annual rate worth US$62.79 billion in 2028.
Not only is it a different way of physically making things, but 3D printing is also changing the picture of who can participate in the industry – and be successful.
3D printing is ideal for small operators because it does not require huge capital investments. It’s also the best solution for ‘newcomers’, while established operators are locked into the old way of manufacturing. New technology is a great opportunity for developing countries to leapfrog developed countries.
In one recent articlewe reviewed the evolution of 3D printing technologies, their disruptive impact on traditional supply chains and the global expansion of the 3D printing market.
We show that the conditions in the African context are favorable for technological leapfrogging and propose that academia, industry and government can work together to support this, giving small and medium enterprises a key role.
We illustrate our argument using South Africa and Kenya as examples.
Technological leapfrogging is related to technological lock-in.
Foreclosure occurs when an established technology continues to dominate the market even after new and superior technology has arrived. The old technology continues to succeed not because it is better, but because it has gained the benefits of an early market lead.
In developed countries, where old technology has taken hold, it is difficult for radical new technologies to take off. Too much has already been invested in the old ways.
But it is different in developing countries. Less has been invested in older technologies. And almost everyone starts from the same point; the mobile phone is an example.
For a long time, the African continent has lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to manufacturing. A recent report indicates that while Africa is home to 17% of the world’s population, it represents only 2% of the world’s manufacturing value added. 3D printing presents an opportunity to revive this sector thanks to a technological leap.
African countries meet the four key conditions pointed out by scholars for the technological leap:
There must be a big difference between the wage costs of the leading nation and potential challengers.
The new technology must appear initially unproductive and less profitable compared to the old one.
The experience of the old technology should be less useful and less transferable to the new technology.
The new technology must, in the long term, improve productivity and efficiency.
To take the first condition, the wage cost of an average African country is a small fraction of the wage cost of a developed country. For example, according to latest estimatesthe average annual income in Nigeria is $2,000, compared to $64,530 in the United States.
3D printing is initially unproductive due to lower initial adoption rates. This means a smaller market and limited profit opportunities.
Regarding the third condition, 3D printing is not a incremental improvement over what came before, so experience with the old technology doesn’t count for much.
On the fourth condition, one of the strongest arguments in favor of 3D printing is that it reverses the dominant logic of traditional manufacturing: economies of scale. Large multinational manufacturing corporations invest heavily in machinery, logistics, and other material and human resources for mass production. They only make big profits if they sell enough units. The more they sell, the greater their profit margins.
3D printing does not need high-volume centralized production and large storage. So it pays to produce fewer units. There is no need to invest heavily in manufacturing plants, as 3D printers are available in various smaller sizes and at lower cost. There is now a growing market for budget and do-it-yourself 3D printers that cost under $200.
Smaller and more durable
All of this shifts the advantage in favor of micro, small and medium enterprises.
first of all, it offers greater reward for creativity and ingenuity. Like the African blacksmith of old, additive manufacturers can custom design higher value products in response to specific demands and requirements.
The proximity of 3D printing workshops to customers is another advantage as it reduces logistics costs and supply chain challenges.
Micro and small 3D printing shops can provide work and household income opportunities.
University, industry and government
Our study proposes a way for the academic, industrial and government sectors of the African continent to work together to exploit the opportunities offered by 3D printing. These domains – producing knowledge, producing goods and regulating economic relations – tended to be disconnected. Instead, we argue that greater integration can encourage innovation.
We give examples from South Africa and Kenya to illustrate the challenges and opportunities.
In South Africa, universities are leading the campaign to provide training and retraining programs for engineers, technologists and other professionals involved in 3D printing. Much remains to be done to develop new curricula, research and programs in the field of additive manufacturing.
Kenyan universities are at an early stage, focusing on organizing networking and knowledge exchange events.
In the public sector, South Africa has the most detailed policy document from any African country on 3D printing. The country’s 3D printing strategy is led by the Ministry of Science and Technology and agencies such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Technology Innovation Agency. In the industrial sector, South Africa Rapid Product Development Association works closely with the government to organize conferences, workshops and community engagement activities.
The results so far
the South African 3D printing industry has enjoyed considerable success in recent years, driven by a growing community of enthusiasts and designers.
Small businesses and startups are making their way in fields such as 3D printing of mobile phone accessories, car accessories and jewelry. In 2014, South African doctors have used 3D-printed titanium bones to perform a jaw transplant, the second in the world. There is also recent applications 3D printing in housing.
The three spheres must work more on investments in research, political interventions and strategic public procurement. And they have to cross borders. Universities can market and contribute to policy. Industry can invest in research and influence policy. Governments can play in the market and in the production of knowledge.