More engineers are thinking about developing products and services for the betterment of humanity, but it’s not as easy as you think. There are twists and turns in setting up a social enterprise, and needs of a community could change in a matter of miles.
Penn State University’s Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship Program (HESE) educates engineers on how to develop products for communities, establishing the context, and creating a business model that’s sustainable
. Social ventures used to be about NGOs, but that has changed significantly, said John Gershenson, director at the HESE program.
“Just because an idea works and solves a problem doesn’t mean it will have an impact. If the products fail, it’s not worth it,” Gershenson said.
HESE has five projects in the works. One of the more interesting projects relates to using 3-D printing
to quickly make health equipment like braces, clamps, and vacuum pumps at low cost. Called Kijenzi, the project is based in Kenya.
The project started off with the development of a 3-D printer that can be moved easily from one community to another in a backpack or duffel bag. But after understanding community needs and checking viability of the idea, the plan was tweaked to focus on quick cloud-based delivery of CAD files to 3-D printers via mobile devices. The press of a button would lead to 3-D printing of devices.
“The problems weren’t the 3D printer, but how you interact with it. A typical user there has no CAD experience. Computers are far more expensive,” Gershenson said.
Gershenson and co-founder of the project, research assistant Ben Savonen, found it cheaper to acquire cheaper 3-D printers from local partners, Qtron and AB3D, which also had wider distribution. The printers were tested with local businesses—typically 2-D printing shops—who found that the business could be sustainable to 3-D print
a wider range of products beyond health equipment.
Working with local partners, who have a better idea of local needs, is key for social ventures to work. Testing the idea also helps fine-tune the business model, and in this case, Kijenzi found one in delivery of CAD/CAM files from the cloud, and making hassle-free push-button 3-D printing possible.
“That phase of the project was focused on better assessing the potential for 3-D printing in Kenyan healthcare. Now that we have a good understanding of that ecosystem, it is more sustainable for us to purchase printers manufactured within Kenya from our partners,” Savonen said.
Kijenzi started off two years ago, and the HESE program stresses training on the field to test business models.
“We’ve spent 12 of the last 24 months in East Africa testing the product or business model with people on the ground,” Gershenson said.
The 3-D printer designed for Kijenzi is now being repurposed for use in another HESE project focused on snap production of parts in humanitarian crises situations. The printer—still in experimental phase—can be carried like a briefcase, set up in five minutes, and produce a part in five minutes. It can withstand dust and heat, and run on solar power.
The project’s idea is to use locally recycled plastic, like PET, filaments. CAD experts aren’t usually present on frontlines, and need time to generate STL files for 3-D printing, and that could be done by distant volunteer engineers
belonging to groups like Engineers Without Borders. It’s still an idea, Gershenson said.
Crowdfunding for the Kijenzi project is going on here
Agam Shah is associate editor at Mechanical Engineering
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