Unleashing the Potential of 3D Printing in Nonprofits: Revolutionizing Aid with Additive Manufacturing

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There are almost 10 million nonprofit organizations around the world today. In the United States alone, there are 1.5 million registered 501(c)(3) organizations that operate with goals oriented toward altruistic or humanitarian causes. Spanning from small, grassroots community groups, to large, multinational programs with operations around the world, nonprofit organizations can take many forms and perform a variety of roles based on the needs of their surroundings. Their sectors are vast as well encompasing everything from advocacy to food security, medical assistance, and law, even within the world of additive manufacturing in construction, where 3D printing is being used to create homes and schools thanks to nonprofit organizations.

Indeed, these groups play a big role in many communities around the world and have been instrumental in ways that governments and for-profit entities have not been effective. However nonprofit organizations, as their name and nature imply, are often operating on very tight budgets with small teams of dedicated people and volunteers. A 2022 report from Fitch Ratings found that nonprofit healthcare organizations had an operating margin of just 0.2%. This slim balance means that organizations are often hard-pressed to find the resources necessary to complete their tasks. Enter 3D printing, where a wide range of technologies and industries bring the benefits of lower cost, fewer staff and training, and the ability to create on-demand rather than operating in constant shortage and excess. Not to mention the elimination of logistics and supply chain barriers, and the lower operating costs in both materials and energy.

3D printing technology has the potential to revolutionize the nonprofit industry in ways that provide cost-effective and quality solutions, increasing the effectiveness and capacity of nonprofits in the process. We can already see 3D printing-based nonprofits emerge across several industries, and it is from these professionals that we can learn about the real impact of 3D printing in nonprofits, the benefits it brings, areas for improvement, as well as their expert opinions on the future of 3D printing technology in the nonprofit field. Throughout this article, we will explore the various applications of 3D printing in nonprofits and gain insight from the professionals who use them to gain a better understanding of the potential that 3D printing has as a means to enhance humanitarian efforts around the world.

Nonprofits Provide Accessible 3D Printed Prosthetics

So, how exactly are we already seeing the use of AM in nonprofits? One of the earliest and most enduring forms of 3D printing in nonprofit success is in the area of accessible prosthetics. According to a 2022 market report, traditionally manufactured prosthetics can cost between $1,500 and $8,000 out of pocket, while a 3D printed prosthetic can cost as little as $50. This, when combined with the advances in 3D printing with high-performance polymers, means that 3D printed prosthetics can be more durable and long-lasting for only a fraction of the cost.

Following the early success of the Robohand project, one of the first programs that had future e-NABLE founders partner with 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot to develop and share 3D printed prosthetic models, many doors were opened. Accessibility is key here. The capability of 3D printing for local production has made a real difference, particularly in areas with less access to steady healthcare – such as war zones.

Today, nonprofit organizations devoted to 3D-printed prosthetics constitute a huge portion of nonprofits that use 3D printing. From conflict zones like Ukraine where nonprofits use 3D printing to assist soldiers and victims of conflict, to local community assistance in the United States and beyond. With the reduced cost of 3D printing and freedom of design, customization, and materials used, prosthetics became a spotlight for additive manufacturing in nonprofit work.

For the Orlando-based nonprofit Limbitless Solutions, Executive Director Dr. Albert Manero explains, “3D printing is a valuable tool for prototyping design ideas quickly which accelerates project development. […] 3D printed parts when optimized have been able to perform at a high level.” This shows how 3D printing can match or exceed its traditionally manufactured counterparts, even within nonprofits. It also shows how the trends of the AM market influence production. Dr. Manero continues, “Limbitless Solutions has been using 3D printing as a tool in our design process since day one. We use it not only for final parts, but also for molding prototyping and as a positive die for thermo-vacuum forming.”

Simplifying and Streamlining with 3D Printing

Of course, prosthetics are only one part of the puzzle of 3D printing and nonprofits. With the continued evolution of 3D printing technology, the opportunities for its expansion have grown dramatically across the world. Organizations are taking advantage of prototyping and breakthrough design solutions. These solutions can be applied in several areas, from meeting the demand for prosthetics and 3D printed medical equipment in warzones, to streamlining processes. The end goal is to enable the complete 3D printing of prosthetics from the comfort of your own home, as demonstrated by research done at Loughborough University. Apart from prosthetics, 3D printing nonprofit organizations have also been using the technology to manufacture various medical pieces, including pediatric hearing aids (3DP4ME), first aid equipment, and prototyping for educational and medical research purposes.

The advantages of 3D printing go beyond just a single product. Many of these manufacturing designs are online, frequently free or open source, meaning they can be printed just about anywhere on-demand. This is the case with various organizations, including Glia, that make use of open source designs. These designs can be accessed, adapted, and enhanced without incurring any additional costs. Although Glia is technically a for-profit company, its operations are very similar to those of nonprofits and we want to share their valuable insights along with the others.

The team at Glia revealed that “the accessibility and cost-effectiveness of desktop 3D printers and their filament make them portable and energy-efficient. 3D printing allows for a swift change of products, or several items to be printed at once, addressing specific or urgent needs. The idea of printing on demand eliminates the necessity for large-scale production and inventory storage, as well as related costs. This makes the production process more streamlined and enables a quicker response with shorter turnaround times. The improvements are not only on the production side, but also on the human side.”

This is confirmed by the team at Glia who say, “operating a 3D printer requires very little training, making it an ideal technology to include in a variety of environments. The ease of use of 3D printers increases their adaptability within nonprofit organizations, allowing them to take advantage of their benefits without needing much training.”

Although it might not yet be feasible to achieve the high-volume production rates seen in industrial additive manufacturing, 3D printing has showcased its utility and adaptability in the field. This is further underscored by Dr. Eric James of Field Ready, who says “3D printing is a highly adaptable and versatile tool that performs well in situations where complexity is high and only a limited number of items are necessary. Its relative affordability and user-friendliness have made it a game-changer.”

3D Printing Assists Nonprofits in Assisting Others

Field Ready is another nonprofit that leverages this technology to fashion prototypes and small batch 3D prints in disaster zones. Their comprehensive range of 3D printed items cater to the varying needs of the communities they assist. These range from 3D printed medical and sanitation facilities, to toys, and even 3D printing entrepreneurial projects. Like 3D printed prosthetics, components manufactured through 3D printing present significant advantages over traditional materials in terms of cost, accessibility, and functionality, while simultaneously promising high durability and quality.

A different organization called Glia also provides innovative solutions by producing 3D printed tourniquets and parts for stethoscopes. They noticed interesting outcomes, stating that “We have deliberately adopted a self-assembly model for our stethoscope. We have found that individuals who actively engage in the assembly process, such as building their personal stethoscope, cultivate a deeper rapport with their device. While many initially harbor doubts, assuming that a collection of 3D printed plastic parts could only lead to an inferior product, users often find that plastic components and reasonable prices do not necessarily mean having to compromise on quality.”

The role of 3D printing in nonprofits takes on an additional aspect that best reflects the humanitarian nature of the organizations that utilize it. In a previous interview with 3Dnatives, Executive Director of Field Ready, Dr. Eric James stated his organization’s goals of “humanitarian making”, which involves fostering an environment of individuals and organizations who seek to improve local manufacturing, response, resilience, inclusiveness, and community.

The task of building up professionals and organizations who are well-versed in 3D printing and can suit the needs of nonprofit work can be a difficult task, but expanding awareness of the technology is key to its continued use. As Dr. James explains, “There remains relatively little knowledge about 3D printing. Most people who are not involved in making/fabrication do not know about the capabilities and utility of this technology. We try to educate people and communicate that this is a useful tool in the contexts in which we provide aid.”

The aspect of cooperation and collaboration is one of the aces that nonprofits have up their sleeve. Organizations that band together to share information or resources often have the benefit of reach, experience, and a deeper expert knowledge of the technology, people, and environment. While many examples exist of non-3D printing-related nonprofit networks, it is exciting to see the same possibilities begin to take shape with 3D printing. “Openness fosters international collaboration,” Explains the Glia team, “sharing knowledge and fostering collaboration represents a noteworthy achievement in the dynamic intersection of 3D printing, open-source initiatives, and nonprofit endeavors.”

Hurdles to Overcome

While the future may hold many exciting things in store for AM and its use in the nonprofit field, there are still certain barriers that are being addressed which, once cleared, may speed the adoption and advancement of the technology around the world. The most important aspect to keep in mind is that the use of 3D printing in nonprofits is still quite new and requires more time and awareness to fully develop.

As Dr. James points out, “While there is a technical issue with 3D printing simply not being ubiquitous or as easy to use as some had predicted, there are also institutional barriers. There is a bias toward centralized supply chains which presents a significant challenge to localization.” This presents the greatest issues to remote deployments where access to further resources may be hard to come by. Training and the proliferation of information can help in this regard, but it requires more time to reach the level of acceptance enjoyed by traditional methods of production.

The Glia team shares a similar plight, as they seek to overcome the stigma of plastic components in the context of environmental sustainability,“One of the most significant challenges that we encounter – the prevailing stigma surrounding plastics – as it’s often perceived as cheap and disposable. Overcoming this misconception is crucial, as it hinders the acceptance of 3D-printed medical devices. While acknowledging the environmental concerns related to single-use plastics, we emphasize that plastics, when used responsibly, can contribute to positive outcomes. Clinical testing demonstrates the performance of 3D-printed products, while physical testing underscores their quality and durability. Through these efforts, we actively engage in public education promoting a “good vs. evil” use of plastics model, aiming to shift perceptions and garner acceptance within the community, ultimately dispelling the notion of plastics as inherently negative and disposable.” Again, this is an area where those within the 3D printing industry have more knowledge about the environmental impact of various polymers, filaments and other 3D printing materials.

Awareness, training, and education are important steps toward building networks of 3D printing in communities around the world. (Photo credits: Field Ready)

Ultimately, the role of education and raising awareness will do the most good for extolling the use of 3D printing in the nonprofit industry and building up international consensus. Even within Field Ready’s ‘humanitarian making’ efforts, Dr. James explains the task, “Field Ready is a pioneer in this area and has worked hard to bring groups and interests together. A number of our initiatives have contributed to wider efforts while we strive to be a good partner to others. One of the challenges is that humanitarian making represents a real hybrid area which has not reached its full potential. Each partnership is part of a wider effort to move this transformational approach toward mainstream use.” Despite challenges though, he remains upbeat, concluding, “Improvements are showing the potential coming through as the years have progressed.”

The Glia team also shares a positive outlook toward the future of the industry, “we’ve witnessed a growing interest from others exploring our business model and seeking to replicate it in different locations around the world. […] a grassroots movement is spreading the word about our vision, mission, and the quality and potential of well-designed and implemented 3D printed products. This evolving perspective is leading to increased acceptance of this production method over traditional approaches.”

Looking to the Future of Nonprofit 3D Printing

The future of additive manufacturing is set to bring exciting developments across various industries including medical, materials, and microscopic construction. This innovation is also evident within the nonprofit organizations that employ these 3D printing technologies. The expansion of the 3D printing nonprofit sector emerged as a major trend in our findings, with new breakthroughs enhancing the capacities of existing organizations and enabling professionals to enhance their technical skills. Dr. Manero highlighted, “Quality and consistency are two priorities.”

The Glia team outlined their future growth objectives, stating, “We are committed to using our expertise to expand our humanitarian impact, particularly by moving from basic to more advanced medical devices internally. This advancement marks a significant milestone as it increases the accessibility to complex diagnostic and treatment equipment in low- to middle-income regions worldwide.”

An important element to consider when applying 3D printing technology in nonprofit organizations is the capability to service and repair in-house without needing to call in company technicians and licensed products. This concept, known as ‘Right to Repair,’ is a topic of discussion between manufacturers and customers across the tech industry, including 3D printing. Although the proposition is currently under discussion by governments worldwide, there’s little doubt that this right would be valuable to nonprofits operating on tight budgets.

Glia explains their interest in the issue, “This [Right to Repair] movement prioritizes repair over replacement, aiming to enhance the affordability of repairs, leading to a more sustainable economy and waste reduction. Glia is actively participating in a project aligned with this movement, focusing on restoring inoperable and obsolete medical equipment for which replacement components are simply unavailable. […] Locally designed and manufactured replacement components, often utilizing 3D design software and 3D printers, breathe new life into crucial equipment in regions where easy access to such resources is a luxury. This trend extends beyond healthcare, showcasing the potential for 3D printing to play a vital role in various sectors within lower-income regions worldwide serviced by nonprofit organizations.”

With the trajectory of the additive manufacturing industry as a whole, there is an air of optimism about the use of 3D printing as a power for good to help deal with some of the most pressing needs that people face in their day-to-day lives. We can already see the efficacy that comes with 3D printing with a mission and thanks to pioneering organizations, we can envision a day where 3D printing enables people around the world to access the help they need, when it is needed.

For more information about the various organizations listed in the article, feel free to visit their websites to learn more about their operations, donations, and the technology they use. What do you think about the role of 3D printing in humanitarian work? How do you see the industry changing in the coming years? Let us know in a comment below or on our LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter pages! Don’t forget to sign up for our free weekly Newsletter here, the latest 3D printing news straight to your inbox! You can also find all our videos on our YouTube channel.

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