Analysis / 3D Printing: Shaping Africa’s Future
Shaping Africa’s Future
According to the global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, one out of four workers worldwide may be African by 2030. The global center of gravity of labor-intensive manufacturing is expected to shift to poorer economies with lower labor costs—including those in sub-Saharan Africa—and the African region could emerge as “the next factory of the world.” Yet, this is not certain. The adoption of technologies associated with “Industry 4.0”—the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and three-dimensional (3D) printing—in China and high-income economies in Europe and the United States is reducing the importance of low labor costs in determining overall production location and may, in the long term, lead to a reshoring of global supply chains.
For African economies, this may mean fewer entry points into global supply chains and may make industrialization more difficult to achieve. Because most African countries generally lack essential technology and industry skills, there is no near-term scenario under which they would be able to leverage technologies like 3D printing and automation to compete globally in manufacturing. While there are opportunities to “leapfrog” to new technologies, developing the relevant worker know-how, infrastructure, and corporate capabilities are likely to be a gradual process. African policy makers must therefore pursue disparate strategies to ensure relevance as 3D printing and automation move into the mainstream. The experiences of other countries facing similar challenges may provide valuable lessons. This brief explores how the approaches pursued by India, Cambodia, and South Africa might inform African development strategies.
The Muddled Promise of 3D Printing in Africa
3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing—is attracting more attention as it steadily matures and moves into the mainstream. In 2016, total global revenues from 3D printing systems totaled more than $6 billion, representing a 17.4 percent expansion of the industry. In emerging markets, 3D printing is expected to become a $4.5 billion industry by 2020, as the range of printable materials expands beyond its currently limited array. Some estimates suggest that if the current growth of investment in 3D printing continues, 50 percent of all globally manufactured goods will be printed by 2060.
Commonly referred to as a “disruptive technology,” additive manufacturing often conjures up images of a future that is utopian or dystopian, depending on one’s outlook. At its core, however, 3D printing is just another manufacturing process. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, 3D printing is “the process of joining materials to make objects from three-dimensional (3D) models layer by layer as opposed to subtractive methods that remove materials.” While traditional manufacturing creates forms by removing layers of material, 3D printing processes create objects by adding material; much like how a pastry chef might assemble a layer cake, the materials are shaped into designs to fulfill specific functions.
3D printing offers several advantages over traditional manufacturing processes. Among them is the ability to create objects with complex geometries and internal cavities. Using sunglasses as an example, wherein a manufacturer would normally produce the sunglass pieces separately and then assemble them, 3D printing allows for sunglasses to be produced as a whole with the material varying in different areas of the frame; the earpieces are soft and flexible, while the rims supporting the lenses are hard. This has applications ranging from jet engine components to hearing aids. GE Aviation produces fuel nozzles for its next-generation turbofan engines using 3D printing. Ninety-eight percent of hearing aids worldwide are manufactured through 3D printing processes, each being custom-made to fit the user’s unique ear shape. Because each printed object is produced independently, it can be easily modified to meet particular needs or to accommodate updates.
The Atlantic Council Washington, D.C.