We are proud to present the final entry in our series of student-authored blog posts.
It is commonly understood that working in developing communities requires using different techniques. The cultural and economic conditions are vastly different from the developed world. This often renders various technologies and engineering solutions ineffective and even inappropriate. Although these differences are accounted for by development professionals, the delivery of engineering information to local communities is still often overlooked.
Construction in developing communities faces many challenges not present in developed countries. For instance, low literacy rates are common. This becomes an issue for NGOs using participatory development methods and utilizing local labor to help install their projects. Even the formal construction industries in developing countries face a severe lack of training. The low skill level requirements for entry into the construction industry coupled with informal hiring practices results in an uneducated work force. Additionally, managers tend to over value experience and neglect formal training processes.
Despite this state of affairs, the delivery of engineering information to workers has remained static. To be effective, information needs to be communicated using a vocabulary that is understandable by its recipients. Standard engineering instructions, however, consist of drawings and writings on printed paper. It is not uncommon for the information needed to assemble one portion of a structure to be found on multiple pages. The worker is thus required to read all pertinent pages and mentally put the information together. These documents are not easily interpreted by workers who are often illiterate and untrained.
3D printing may provide a solution to presenting engineering information to people in developing societies. These new engineering instructions would be tangible and adaptive. Instead of writings and drawings on paper, physical 3D printed models would be used to describe the proposed structure. 3D printers can be used to print multiple objects, each representing a step in the assembly process, which can be put together and taken apart. Workers can physically see, touch, and manipulate objects to learn and plan each step prior to beginning construction. 3D models also eliminate the need for workers to mentally piece together multiple 2D drawings to understand their work. In addition, 3D printed models can be customized to display parts of the structure or assembly steps in different ways. Designers can take into account cultural and cognitive differences of the people they will be working with to ensure accurate interpretation of the information.
As a new technology, 3D printing is still developing; however, the technology exists to create these models and use them in the field. The ease of use and variety of applications will only increase as this technology is refined. 3D printers themselves as well as the material they use is constantly becoming more affordable. Current commodity 3D printers such as the MakerBot Replicator 2 retail for around $2,000 and the plastic used to print models costs $10 per kilogram (enough to print multiple models). Furthermore, the accuracy and strength of the models being produced is also improving. To be effectively used in the construction industry, models must be able to withstand rugged conditions. This cutting edge technology provides a promising option to provide information that is fitting for actual field conditions on construction projects in developing communities.