Can 3D printing technology replace the traditional molding technology in Kenya’s manufacturing sector?

By Eugene Wanekeya

A small scale 3D printing work station showing the digital files and the finished printed objects.

I consider myself tech-savvy and up to date with trends but it came as a surprise to me that 3D printing technology has been in Kenya for the past four years. I have seen this amazing tech in movies of course and at times thought it was science fiction – the objects these 3D printers can produce are unbelievable! Which brings me to my point, can 3D printing technology replace the traditional molding technology in Kenya’s manufacturing sector? And, has this technology been poorly marketed in Kenya?

Let’s start with the basics. What is 3D printing? 3D printing commonly referred to as additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. In much ‘simpler’ terms, it involves laying down successive layers of material through a computer-controlled process until the object is created. Objects can be of almost any shape or geometry and are produced using digital model data from a 3D model or another electronic data source such as an Additive Manufacturing File (AMF) file. For instance, (just keeping it simple), you can print an actual plastic Octopus by first inputting a 3D image of the Octopus into the printing software, and the printer does the rest – printing out the solid Octopus.

To start us off, tech analysts in the manufacturing sector do not see 3D printing technology as a replacement or competitor to the traditional injection molding and other mass manufacturing technologies. Instead, they see it as complementary reason being, 3D printing addresses some weaknesses of traditional manufacturing methods but does not surpass the strengths. For instance, the main weakness in traditional manufacturing has always been low volume production. Many small-scale entrepreneurs in manufacturing have ended up with very high production costs because it is too expensive to produce in small quantities. In some instances, it is impossible to get a manufacturer to produce your products if you do not hit a certain threshold in terms of quantity to be produced.

This is where 3D printing comes in handy. The technology makes it possible for manufacturers to engage in low volume production in a relatively short amount of time and in a cost-effective way. The technology further makes it much faster and cheaper to produce prototypes which in traditional manufacturing may require molds to be produced, time and other related costs which make the process expensive. When much higher volumes are needed, manufacturers can then switch to injection molding which has proven to be inexpensive in typical mass manufacturing.

…3D models that have proven to be useful in the field of medicine, education, art, manufacturing…

However, this debate is still on since so many factors must be put into consideration before engaging in manufacturing. Cost per unit remains an important figure in production however, other factors such as production time, inventory cost, flexibility in terms of ability to change product design and human capital, among other factors may influence a manufacturer’s use of these technologies. This is where the marketing aspect of 3D technology in Kenya needs to come in. Thus, far, other than the fact that this technology can be used to print out 3D models that have proven to be useful in the field of medicine, education, art, manufacturing etc., pioneers in the market are yet to demonstrate the value-add or key selling point of adopting 3D printing technology in Kenya’s manufacturing sector.

The first ever 3D printed building located in Dubai.

For me personally, a 3D printer seems like a cool toy to add to my collection but businesswise, it is up to me to engage in my own research as an entrepreneur to establish whether investing in one is likely to bring me significant net returns. The same I believe will apply to large scale manufactures who would be interested in knowing whether investing in the technology would ultimately cut or increase their cost of production. The goal of technology is to solve a problem but without increasing the costs to the end user. So, it is up to these pioneers of 3D printing technology in Kenya to demonstrate the problem this technology is going to solve and whether it makes economic sense.

All in all, I can’t wait to get my hands on a 3D printer.

This post was published in Marketing Africa Magazine (May 2017 edition).

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