3D printing mimics regular paper printing where a computer-aided designed part is sent to a printer for direct manufacture. Technically, this involves the digital data of a computer aided 3D model design being sent to the printer which then produces the object layer-by-layer. The process enables the conversion of almost any virtual object into real parts.
In more developed countries, 3D printing is already being introduced into design work flows by several manufacturing giants. However, in less develped countries like Nigeria, little is known about vast aspects of the technology even in academic institutions.
In our study, we set out to investigate how well versed people in Nigeria’s industrial and educational sectors were about the technology. We also wanted to assess whether it should be introduced to science and engineering education in the country. We took this approach because the growth of 3D printing in Nigeria is expected to affect manufacturing as well as the education sector.
We concluded from our research that the technology is lacking in the Nigerian industrial setting. We also found that it offers the opportunity for new teaching practices in science and engineering programs because it has the rare advantage of applying to anyone with a basic understanding of computer aided design. This can range from senior secondary school students to university students and professionals.
We surveyed over 60 participants from various universities and industries in Nigeria. We tested respondents on their awareness of the technology and its capabilities.
We found that over 90% of the participants had heard of 3D printing. But only 38% had a basic understanding of the technology. And only 12% indicated their ability to use fused deposition modelling, arguably the most popular 3D printing polymer technology.
The fact that so few people know how to use the technology isn’t surprising. Engagement with 3D printing in Nigeria’s manufacturing sector is low.
In 2017, Nigerian Foundries Limited, one of the leading ferrous foundries in Africa bought the largest 3D printer in West Africa from Titan Robotics. This printer is used to speed up the creation of a range of patterns needed for moulding and casting clients’ products.
But this is a rare example in the country.
Aside from awareness and a deficit in skills, adopting 3D printing has faced another major hurdle in Nigeria – the reliance on imports. Nigeria’s growing reliance on imported goods has hindered local content development and in turn hindered localised manufacturing. Only a few well-established manufacturing companies are able to compete with importers.
3D printing offers itself as a convenient method of local manufacturing because it can be customised and has relatively low production outputs.
In the educational sector, we found that 3D printing efforts were less than average. A few universities boast of owning 3D printers. But these were often left idle in research centres, and out of the reach of students who will benefit from using them.
Some outliers, like the University of Lagos, said they’d received donations of 3D printing equipment. And they have gone ahead to set up hackathons for students.
These efforts are notable. But more is necessary to ensure students are adept with the technology. This will foster more robust research and general knowledge of 3D printing technologies within academic institutions and industries likewise.
There are several consequences of low 3D printing adoption in Nigeria.
One is the skills gap between industry and university students. This gap progressively widens as technological advancements speed up. It makes it difficult for employers, ready to research and implement these emerging technologies, to find skilled and knowledgeable recruits.
On the flip side, the students skilled in 3D printing also face a lack of gainful employment because of the technology’s low-level adoption amongst manufacturing companies.
Ways to boost the 3D printing engagement
3D printing may continue to be sidelined in to the industry until deliberate attempts are made to support local manufacture – and limit importation.
Other great options the government should explore include loans to digital manufacturers, and awareness campaigns.
But possibly the biggest boost could come from introducing 3D printing in the educational sector and curriculum. This would afford high school and university students the opportunity to engage with the technology, improving their knowledge and cognitive skills.
Students in an academic setting could be given opportunities to perform projects and solve problems based on practical scenarios. Project-driven teams could be set up for research or student competition purposes.
3D printing could also be introduced in form of practical courses in a laboratory.
The government should also consider providing schools with facilities that encourage the adoption of 3D printing adoption. Examples include open access laboratories equipped with 3D printers and funding countrywide competitions that encourage manufacturing ideas.
3D printing in industry is virtually absent from Nigeria’s industrial sector. It’s also virtually absent as a subject in the education sector. One way to unleash its potential in the manufacturing sector would be to educate students. This can help students improve skills and knowledge in advanced manufacturing thus making them more competitive in the industry.
It can also be a backbone for local manufacturing, encouraging individuals to develop startups with “homegrown” solutions.
Alex Inoma, a mechanical engineering student, co-authored this study.
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Written by Osezua Ibhadode, Research Assistant, University of Waterloo