3D Printing in Africa

Africa’s Metabolising CAD design and 3D Printing Services


Contact us for 3D Printing and Design projects on the African continent –
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The growth of 3D printing in Africa affects both manufacturing and academic sectors.
However, this progress is slow and invisible due to multiple obstinate challenges.
Meaningful academic training and the lack of awareness towards 3d printing services to start with.
Then, resource, material and financial access coupled with geographical restrictions are the main culprits.
Is the solution not present with all the known challenges?

Africa’s ad-hoc ingenuity and raw materials exports to other continents at almost zero base cost.
Manufacturing materials returns to Africa with no economical muscle to absorb the global market.
Here we are referring to 5% of 3d-printing filament exports to Africa from China.
This indicates the lack of 3d printing services accessible to the majority of the African population.
Can 3D printing with low-cost FDM move beyond such issues into the 21st century Afro-3DP Industrial Renaissance?

CAD skills and 3D Printing

Enter 3D printing technology which opens up new skill development sets starting with the basic application of Computer-Aided-Design.
The African demographic dominantly consists of a young vibrant dynamic force which should flatten all these overanalyzed problem bumps.
3D printing extends with CAD-skills the opportunity for new teaching practices in science and engineering programs.
It has the rare advantage of applying to anyone with a basic understanding of Computer-Aided Design.
This ranges from senior secondary school students to university students and professionals.

3D printing has few production stages and flexibility to build products at the point of consumption reduces global transportation costs.
It also negates vulnerability to risk factors like political unrest and natural disasters common to some African countries.
Oxford University states that 85% of Ethiopian jobs are at risk of being replaced by 3D printing.
Also 67% in South Africa, and 65% in Nigeria.


One of the fallacies surrounding 3D printing is that monumental change is imminent.
3D printing is still underdeveloped. It does not scale optimally with the range of printable materials is expanding. Manufacturing is not monolithic in terms of 3D printing.
The adoption varies across subsectors with some industries more affected than others.
Those less affected are likely to continue to facilitate potential entry points into GVCs for less industrialized economies. This includes commodity-based manufacturers, such as wood and paper products and food processing. Therefore less susceptible to international competition.
GVCs fed with raw materials assume more powerful roles as 3D printing is more widely adopted.

Third parties will require small batches of input materials for printing.
With an abundance of mineral reserves including titanium, which is of special interest for the aerospace and defense industries.
Titanium has advantages due to its weight and chemical resistance.
South Africa is positioning itself as a global supplier of metal 3D printed parts for the medical and aerospace markets.
It leads the continent in 3D printing.
The S.A. government aims to export more than 50 tons of 3D printed titanium parts per annum.
In 2017, the Aeroswift project, a South African-built titanium powder 3D printer successfully produced aircraft parts.
These included a throttle lever, a condition lever grip, and a fuel tank nylon bracket.

The project collaborates between Aerosud and the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. South Africa benefits from established educational institutes that have advanced research and design capabilities, as well as vibrant innovation hubs.
Examples include the Vaal University of Technology’s (VUT), the Southern Gauteng Science and Technology Park and the Centre for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing at the Central University of Technology.
These ‘hubs’ provide 3D printing services for medical, prototyping, and rapid tooling purposes.


“Makerspaces” additionally help businesspersons realize their product ideations for which 3D printing is a key tool. The global “maker movement,” a technology-based extension of the “do-it-yourself” culture, has given rise to a number of makerspaces, or “fab labs,” around the world. There are more than 100 such makerspaces in Africa today. In 2011, VUT launched the “Idea 2 Product” lab series with twenty personal 3D printers. The labs have expanded to multiple South African universities, science centres, and schools, including township schools and globally to New Zealand, Sweden, and the United States. They allow entrepreneurs to experiment, collaborate, and learn the skills necessary to remain relevant in the coming era of manufacturing.

Global Value Chain

Many African economies have opened up to trade and investment in manufacturing, but they have not done so in services. This is a futile approach. Poorer African economies with lower labour costs risk losing entry points into GVCs for manufactured goods, and they are unlikely to develop sufficiently advanced 3D printing and robotics capabilities to compete with their more developed counterparts. Specializing in upstream activities, such as research and development and design, and in downstream activities like marketing, finance, communications, and distribution of finished goods, can facilitate new entry points.

Many African economies are already competitive in these areas and can become even more competitive over time. Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa have vibrant information and communications technology (ICT)-based services sectors. Nigeria has sophisticated capabilities in banking services; Ghana has capabilities in transportation, storage, and public administration. As GVCs become more digitized, financial technology (fintech) services are also likely to elevate countries like Kenya with advanced fintech capabilities. All of these services require careful regulation, and if properly managed, they could be effective means for integrating African economies into GVCs as 3D printing and automation advance.

Fab Labs

Fab labs are open spaces where entrepreneurs can access digital manufacturing tools, training, and propose projects. The first fab lab was established in 2001 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Bits and Atoms; there are now more than 450 centres worldwide. The labs generally use the same digital tools and are usually virtually connected, which allows them to share designs, code, and instructions for manufacturing. African fab labs can connect with the more than forty labs in Latin America to exchange ideas and transfer knowledge.

Capture 3D Printing Material Segments

The availability of materials and material science knowledge will be one of the key enablers for the widespread adoption of 3D printing. The players at the front of the value chain who supply materials for 3D printing will hold significant influence. They can define the properties and production costs of the components. South Africa takes advantage of its titanium reserves to position itself as a supplier of metal inputs and metal 3D-printed parts across industries. However, it is metals that have been the fastest growing material 3D printing category since 2012. The range of printable materials is further expanding to include ceramics, cement, and glass.

For African countries rich in natural resources, a significant opportunity may lie in supplying and producing metals for metal 3D printing systems. Common metals include stainless steels, aluminum, nickel, cobalt-chrome, and titanium in powder form. Mineral-rich countries, such as Tanzania, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, can differentiate themselves by dominating particular material segments. This may position them to exert influence over the market and the value chain. If not part of a wider economic strategy, however, this approach risks further entrenching African dependence on commodity exports. Resource-rich countries should leverage their competitive advantage in 3D printing materials. The market policy and industry diversification should focus on skills training.

Innovation Technology Hubs

Intra-African trade may hold promise for 3D printing across the continent. In the absence of an adequately trained workforce, African countries are unlikely to be globally competitive in 3D-printed products and parts, with few exceptions. Less sophisticated production may meet local demand. In Nigeria, the start-up ElePhab produces 3D-printed replacement parts for the Nigerian market. In Rwanda, the solar energy provider Great Lakes Energy uses 3D printing to develop packaging and storage solutions for its solar products. Technology ecosystems like fab labs and makerspaces are vital to such ventures, as they allow entrepreneurs to develop skills, collaborate, and innovate around local challenges and solutions.

There are more than 100 such hubs in Africa spurred by government, academic, or private-sector support. For example kLab (knowledge Lab), a Kigali-based co-working space for IT entrepreneurs attracts young software developers, offering them a place to gain practical experience and training in digital design and production. The Rwandan government supports kLab’s ecosystem as part of its National ICT Plan. kLab also maintains ties with the Kigali Institute of Technology and the National University of Rwanda, through which it gains access to potential clientele.

Other models also exist. The Nigerian incubator program, 400.NG, has partnered with the venture capital firm L5Lab in Lagos, as well as local tech hubs in an effort to bridge the gap between talent-picking and skills development. Nairobi’s well- known technology hub, iHub, prides itself on having emerged in spite of, rather than because of, government support. Johannesburg’s Braamfontein neighbourhood houses technology firms, including Impact Hub, Black Girls Code, TechinBraam, and the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship. Like kLab, its success points to the important role that multiple stakeholders have played in supporting Africa’s technology ecosystems and to the likely and varied local applications of 3D printing.


At its core, 3D printing is also just another manufacturing process.
Yet, over time it will significantly reshape how and where things are made.
This has far-reaching consequences for economies that rely on low-wage, labour intensive manufacturing.
In this, African countries are not alone.
African countries observe how other countries also anticipate and prepare for the coming changes may provide valuable lessons.

Smart governments are supporting skills training and innovation, developing complementary competencies, and diversifying their industries and markets.
They are now making the decisions that will later determine their role in a world of 3D printing and automation.
Africa does not have much to gain from 3D printing in the short term.
However, if its governments do not make critical decisions now the continent will have even more to lose.

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