Global trade, the merchandise exports component of which was about US$15.5tn in 2016, according to World Trade Organisation (WTO) data, is expected to shrink by at least half over the next half century due to 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM). In tandem would be global value chains (GVCs), which were set to give African countries perhaps their last fighting chance at industrialisation. At $346bn in 2016, African merchandise exports were just 2% of the world total. And 32% of these were oil exports.
Still, African manufacturing has actually been on the ascendancy, growing in real terms by 3.5% a year to $157bn in 2014, up from $73bn in 2005, with exports doubling to more than $100bn in the period.
But what is additive manufacturing? Simply put, as the name implies: it is manufacturing by adding. Unlike the conventional manufacturing process, where an object having been designed is put into form by “cutting, drilling, and milling”, “a 3D printer starts with nothing and add stuffs to it”. With the aid of a computer programme, a 3D printer is able to produce a three-dimensional physical form of what was hitherto no more than a virtual representation. However, relative to traditional manufacturing, the additive kind is slow and expensive. In addition, the quality of produced objects can sometimes be doubtful. But it is fast evolving to overcome these constraints.
Bespoke specialist products or prototypes are better suited, therefore. For now. Incidentally, there are indications that improvements could come about faster than expected. Take polymer-based manufacturing, for instance: digital light synthesis pioneered by Carbon, an American producer of 3D printers, allows for a process 100 times faster than conventional printing. And objects produced are of far greater quality and strength. For metal printing, better methods are beginning to emerge as well. An example is “bound-metal deposition”, which produces objects 500 times faster than traditional laser-based ones. Thus, the ascendancy of additive manufacturing to mainstream production is only a matter of time.
Read more: How We Made it in Africa