3D Printing in Nepal - From Community to Industry

Supporting Nepal’s 3D printing maker community to flourish

Imagine having a great idea for a new product that would reduce, by a third, the amount of wood and other solid fuels people need to collect for cooking food and boiling water. Imagine that your product could reduce harmful smoke to zero and make the stove fire burn hotter. Imagine that the product would be affordable to everyone, whatever their socio-economic status, and made locally. Now imagine that you can’t make that product because your prototype model is too complex to hand-make.

Prototype burner heads too complex to be hand made, designed by Mr KC with Field Ready’s help. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa, Field Ready

This was the situation for Madhukar KC before he came to Field Ready for support in developing a 3D design and 3D printed prototype for his improved cookstove air supply disk. Through rapid prototype production, redesigns and testing, the air supply disk now boosts the efficiency of improved cookstoves by 26% and Mr KC has won a government contract to produce thousands of these disks. His product is saving time, effort, the environment, money and lives throughout Nepal.

10 years of iterative design of Madhukar KC’s cookstove air supply disks. 3D printing enabled the successful manufacture of new designs. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa, Field Ready

It is instances like this that make 3D printing a transformative technology.

Field Ready and DFID Nepal have decided to explore this technology together through the Scoping and Design phase of DFID’s Frontier Technologies Livestreaming programme.

Nepal’s 3D Printing makers gather together to explore their business models. Photo: Ben Britton, Field Ready

Getting to know the environment

We wanted to touch on lots of areas (and oh boy, we really did!) to understand Nepal’s 3DP ecosystem and marketplace more broadly. We wanted to learn about who is doing what in 3DP and how 3DP and design-based business models can be developed and supported. The project was an amazing opportunity to engage with all of the organisations and individuals working in the 3DP sector in Nepal. We couldn’t believe that, from two operational 3D printers at the beginning of 2015, we discovered over 20 printers and we have plans for 5 more in Nepal today. There might even be more out there that we didn’t find!

All of the 3D printing organisations were mapped as part of this project. Image: Ben Britton, Field Ready

The printers are being used by 18 organisations spread through the medical, educational, research, NGO and commercial sectors. 3D printers are being used for so many purposes, like making medical supplies in remote healthposts, prototyping new products, producing classroom teaching aids, printing reconstruction housing models, even making prosthetic hands, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Field Ready’s Ram Chandra Thapa designing a 3D printable spare part at a rural healthpost. Photo: Ben Britton, Field Ready

After some initial research, meetings and phone calls we wanted to learn more about the sector and its players, so we started off with a great stakeholder discovery session. We got all of the 3DP community together in one room with some potential customers and got them talking. It was clear from this session that those involved with 3D printing are some of the most talented, visionary and highly motivated business people in Nepal.

The challenges around bedding in early-stage technologies and building up business models around them are minor and temporary when contrasted to this stellar assembly of early adopters and industry pioneers. It also became clear from this and subsequent sessions, that, at this early stage, the industry will need support and engagement from customers and partners to grow and flourish. This support is part of what we wanted to identify through this project.

Stakeholder Discovery events were key to learn about the 3D printing community in Nepal. Photo: Ben Britton, Field Ready

Another really important part of the project was training makers and supporting makerspaces. Apart from meeting and mapping all the 3D printing organisations, this was probably the most fun part of the whole thing. We did this to target some support to innovators at an early stage in the development of their business or organisation. We gave technical training to more than 20 individuals, as well as making presentations to many, many more. We were also able to provide 3D printers and setup support to two organisations to establish dedicated 3DP makerspaces — the first in Nepal!

Through the DFID Frontier Technologies Livestreaming project, Field Ready provided 3D printing support and supplies to the National Innovation Centre (pictured here) and other organisations. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa, Field Ready

What are the business models?

Through meeting and talking with 3DP entrepreneurs we wanted to understand and analyse 3D printing-based business models. Right now, there are lots of organisations working on 3DP in Nepal, each with their own little niche in the sector. As the sector develops from a community into an industry, each organisation will develop, expand and refine their business model. There might even be failures and new market entrants.

What we were trying to do during the project was categorise the main business models and understand what could be done to make them more viable and sustainable.

We identified lots that could be done for the future development of 3DP in Nepal like training, local production of plastic filaments, networking buyers and sellers, developing opensource 3D printable designs and building up school technology curricula to include 3DP. This kind of learning will help to plan for future projects that will actually help 3DP in Nepal become a valuable manufacturing industry.

Field Ready delivers 3D printer setup and calibration training to three organisations simultaneously. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa, Field Ready

What did we learn?

We did so much in this phase of the project that will have to be revisited, not least because of the exciting learning points we came away with.

For instance, we produced a catalogue of open source 3D printable medical items which gained lots of interest from the humanitarian sector. We did masses of market research into prices, supply chains and availability of things in local markets, which helped us to identify some areas that are ripe for new manufacturing methods and minimising supply chains. We won a commercial contract to 3D print some parts for an earthquake reconstruction housing model and spread the manufacturing between 3 organisations to better understand dispersed contracting and distributed manufacturing, which will feed into a smart-contracting/manufacturing project called MakerNet.

Distributing manufacture of parts for a 3D printable reconstruction housing model contributed to our learning. Photo: Ram Chandra Thapa, Field Ready

The amount that we learned and the incredible vibrancy and diversity of the 3D printing sector in Nepal makes a compelling case to carry on the learning and engagement with Nepal’s 3D printing community. We have identified some small projects that could make a big difference for the community to develop into an industry and there is massive interest from international organisations, businesses, schools and individuals alike to take 3D printing in Nepal to the next level.

Watch this space…

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