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3D printing takes emergency response to another level

Posted by Angus McBride Public Health Engineering Team Leader

2nd Jun 2014

Children take part in a hand washing instruction at an event to mark global hand washing day in Zaatari camp. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Could 3D printing technology be the future of water and sanitation equipment design? 'Top toilet thinker' Angus McBride, introduces an innovative Oxfam 3D printing trial in Lebanon. 

3D printing has been making headlines recently as a way to create just about anything - from turbine blades to houses and even human organs. Oxfam needs a lot of equipment in emergencies to provide people with basic essentials such as clean water and sanitation. Could 3D printing bring an end to the planeloads of Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene Promotion (WASH) kits being sent from our Bicester warehouse? Could everything instead be printed off on demand? We've started a partnership with iMakr and we're making use of a 3D printer in our Syria Crisis response  in Lebanon to find out.

3D printer on location with Oxfam in Lebanon3D printers work by printing layers of material one on top of another - imagine a very precise computer controlled glue gun. The technology has existed for quite a while but it's only recently that desktop 3D printers have become available at low cost (from around £700). These portable machines are a lot more compact than their industrial cousins, and can even be carried as hold baggage on a plane. It's easy to imagine the benefits of this in Oxfam's programmes by printing equipment on demand in the field, avoiding lengthy procurement processes, transport hold-ups and customs delays. The 3D printer trial is part of the Emergency Sanitation Project to develop better WASH kit and so improve our emergency response.

The downside? The desktop printers are restricted to printing small objects and it's a slow process. This is not to write them off, however. Through our partnership with iMakr we're able to use their online design website to crowdsource solutions for problems encountered in the field (think 'Donate by Design').

Our first challenge is to develop a water-saving hand washing deviceOur first challenge is to develop a water-saving handwashing device that can fit on any household container. Handwashing can have an enormous impact on preventing diarrhoeal disease spreading through faecal oral transmission, but in the places we work people normally have to walk to collect water, so don't want to use too much washing their hands. By developing something that doesn't need frequent re-filling and is easy, desirable, and maybe even fun to use, we can make a difference to people's health in emergencies.

Are you a designer? Get involved at the My Mini Factory website now. What other uses can you think of for 3D printing in our programmes that we should be exploring?

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Main image: Children take part in a hand washing instruction in Zaatari camp. Credit: Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Blog post written by Angus McBride

Public Health Engineering Team Leader

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