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This small start-up is opening manufacturing to the masses

Monday March 7 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Roy Ombati is no ordinary engineer.

Last year, when he was 26, he co-founded African Born 3D Printing (AB3D) with his classmate, Karl Heinz, from Cameroon. 

When you meet these young men and a young lady co-worker, Wendy Banja, you see in their eyes and demeanour the passionate entrepreneurs that they are.

They exude hope for a country that is trying to join the emerging fourth industrial revolution. 

Clad in their overalls and distinguished by their great humility, you would never suspect that these hard-working young men and woman are graduate engineers. 

Out of a garage in Kirichwa Road, Kilimani, they manufacture 3D printers, the latest technology in the world.

Wendy, myself, Roy and Karl. PHOTO | BITANGE
Wendy, myself, Roy and Karl. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

3D printing is a type of industrial robot. Sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing, it uses a computer to produce a three-dimensional product of any shape. 

The technology works through successive layers of material and eventually creates a product. Due to its precision, this new technology is widely used to produce prototypes of any size fast and cheaply. 

It has helped advanced countries to once again become competitive after many years of outsourcing manufacturing to emerging countries where labour is cheaper.

Back to AB3D. The two co-founders both joined the University of Nairobi in 2009 and studied mechanical engineering, graduating in 2014. Ms. Banja studied electrical engineering. 

While in college they took interest in the Fab Lab at the University of Nairobi that grew out from a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) through the efforts of Dr Kamau Gachigi, a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

They decided to take part in a project that was supported by a Dutch non-governmental organisation, Hivos, dubbed "Happy Feet", which was supposed to print customised shoes for people with feet deformed by jiggers.

After printing a number of shoes, they wanted to scale up and take the printers nearer to the people who needed the service most. 

'A NO-BRAINER'

Due to the high capital cost of purchasing several 3D printers at Sh500,000 for each location, they abandoned their dream and decided to make their own printers in the hope that they would one day be able to make larger printers and distribute them throughout the country. 

Since then, they have manufactured more than 40 printers, sourcing all materials locally. They sell each printer for Sh35,000, way cheaper than similar imported ones, which cost more than Sh200,000. 

They supplement their sales through printing car parts, plastic prototypes and other plastic gadgets. They also manufacture the raw material used to print a product.



Wendy and Karl at work. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO
Wendy and Karl at work. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO
 

The raw material is made from waste plastics, so AB3D closely works with garbage collectors to harvest the plastics and shred them into pellets, which are then converted into a strand that feeds into the printer to create a product. 

They also collect e-waste and use most of it to build printers. Although they would like to manufacture more complex components like the motors that drive the printers locally, they fear that without volume, they may not be competitive. 

This, in my view, is a good and solvable problem. Consider what has happened since the advent of high-speed broadband. Mere access and affordability has led to many new enterprises, particularly in e-commerce. 

Access to leading-edge technology at the University of Nairobi allowed these young people to exploit opportunities in an emerging, disruptive space, so you can imagine what would happen if a policy statement required at least two 3D printers in every school, with national competitions to identify those that come up with the finest innovation. 

We would stimulate unimaginable creativity and innovation and, in the process, develop capacity for our country’s future competitiveness.

It took 25 minutes to print this bracket. PHOTO
It took 25 minutes to print this bracket. PHOTO | BITANGE NDEMO

The work these young men and woman are doing, they told me, is a no-brainer. They said any graduate from a village polytechnic can do it, which would free them to work on the more complex job of design and development. 

Next week, they expect to meet some design engineers from the US to pick up a few techniques that they have not been able to learn from the Internet. These will help them venture into manufacturing prosthetics and dentures, and support local manufacturing capabilities by producing prototypes.

There is a great potential to create jobs, and efficiencies, especially in the medical field, will be enhanced. It takes about 30 minutes to print a new tooth that is a complete replica of the one the dentist removes from a patient. 

The replacement teeth patients are getting at the moment are not comparable to 3D-printed teeth, when the time it takes, colour, cost and even the fit are considered.

Tech for Trade, a British charity organisation, has noted their work and funded them to replicate their model in several parts of the country. 

After perfecting their production processes, they plan to scale up. "We want to become solution providers in everything to do with 3D", Roy tells me. They need finance to scale but they have not managed to secure any.

WHY DOES IT TAKE FOREIGNERS?

When I ask them if they have tried the Youth Fund, Roy tells me they fear approaching the government, and they are not the only ones with such fears. 

Our institutional arrangements are not well aligned. The Ministry of Industrialisation, for example, needs a government/industry liaison person who identifies such industrious youth and provides them with necessary support like incubation, marketing and policy support.

Entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators feel let down by government officials, a good number of whom are corrupt. If an idea is good, chances are that it will be stolen and will not benefit the inventor.

Recently, a newspaper revealed that a Kenyan, Dr Kengara Monena, who discovered oil in Turkana back in the 1980s, had his oil samples stolen when he presented them to government officials. The next thing he knew, his discovery had been credited to others.

The approach most likely to succeed is creating industrial parks in all counties to provide such support, like virtually every other progressive country has done. 

I am always amazed that a foreigner gets to know what our youth are doing and supports them before most of us. What is wrong with us? We have a chance to move with the rest of the world on emerging technologies, but not if we shun local start-ups.

With the success of AB3D, universities across the country must not wait for donations but must invest in modern research equipment that is in tune with technological advances, to enable their students to be part of the new crop of innovators. 

It is hopeless that the Africa rising narrative has been left to foreigners to define when we have the resource to be at the forefront. 

Many universities still use very old technologies to teach students, arguing that the basic knowledge remains the same, which is nonsense. Scholars must move with the times and demand new technologies that would make Africa competitive. Some universities have bought modern equipment but their faculty have not upgraded their knowledge enough to use them. 

This is wrong when we can leverage the Internet to learn new techniques or encourage students to learn just like Roy, Karl and Wendy have done.

Edith Widder, an American oceanographer and marine biologist once said, “Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth. So let's all go exploring.”  

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito