It is still a leap to say that everyone in the developing world will be able to access the technology, though. The problem comes with distribution – tablets, smart phones and even basic 3D printing kits are out of the financial reach of individuals in many countries. But Deshmukh thinks it would be possible to base a 3D printing set-up in village schools. In fact, he thinks this is the best way to see the technology put to best use and accepted by communities.
If 3D printers are introduced in the right way, there is no reason why they won’t make a big impact for rural Indian people, says Deshmukh. “I think schools are the way to take these things to villages,” he says. This is the best way to get local politicians and community leaders to take note in India he says. It will also teach people to think around problems to find solutions with the available technologies.
As always, the question of who pays for the technology is a thorny one. Deshmukh thinks some combination of country, state and NGOs is the answer. Lipson agrees that governments in developing countries should take some responsibility, rather than diverting funds from ongoing philanthropic projects. “I would hesitate to take money away from the field,” he adds.
On a smaller scale, a recently launched competition might help to pay for a few projects, and could raise awareness of the power of 3D printing in the developing world. The 3D4D challenge is run by UK-based charity Techfortrade, and supported in part by Econolyst. They’ve called for ideas that use 3D printers to solve developing-world problems, be that by printing solar panels, or by coming up with a way to make a 3D printer-blueprint of a design for a piece of tribal jewellery and have it printed on demand, at the point of sale. The shortlist of the best seven ideas in the competition will receive $1,000 to develop a business case, and the winner announced in October will receive $100,000 to make their idea reality.
William Hoyle, CEO of Techfortrade says the idea of the competition is to harness mobile and 3D-printing technologies to leapfrog the infrastructure problems in many developing countries. How can goods be distributed when there’s only a handful of tarmaced roads in a country, he asks? This is where 3D printing and mobile technology could have a big impact, but not for another year or so, he says, until 3G mobile networks are more widely available.
In the Vigyan Ashram, Deshmukh offers a cautionary word. “We don’t want to work on technologies for the sake of technology,” he says. Undoubtedly 3D printers offer huge opportunities, but Deshmukh hopes that their thoughtful introduction will encourage people to solve their own problems innovatively, rather than just providing easy answers.
Lipson predicts, with an air of optimism, that in a decade the 3D printing revolution will have taken hold globally. “It removes barriers, anyone can make anything,” he says. The limiting factor is the imagination of the inventor.