There are still far too many places in the world that don’t have access to clean, safe water. With the development of new technology, however, that issue can be addressed, and 3D printing has played a part in water relief including filtration devices and delivery carts. The Solomon Islands is one country that needs water relief – more than one in five residents don’t have access to safe water for drinking. It’s also a highly polluted country, with plastic lying in piles and clogging streams. Dr. Mazher Mohammed was hoping to use 3D printing to address both of those issues and more when he traveled to the small island country in January, along with a team from Deakin University and Plan International. 

Dr. Mohammed is a 3D printing expert, and he and Plan International Program Manager Tom Rankin arrived in the Solomon Islands with a project in mind – using portable 3D printers for aid and disaster recovery, using waste plastic. The perfect place to start was with the water pipe supplying the town of Visale, where the team was staying. The pipe was patched together with whatever the locals could find, including bamboo, galvanized iron, old bike tires, plastic piping and a garden hose. It was full of leaks at nearly every join.

Dr. Mohammed and his team measured the pipe and gathered as much waste plastic as they could carry, then ground the plastic down to fine pellets about the size of grains of rice. Using a laptop, they designed plastic connectors to perfectly fit the cobbled-together pipe.

“We wanted it to be rough and ready, and see if we could do it in real circumstances,” Dr. Mohammed said. “You grind the plastic, throw it in the machine, feed it through, and then the printer just takes care of the rest of it.”

The team believes that 3D printing, particularly using locally available waste materials, is more effective – in terms of both time and cost – than what many relief organizations are currently doing. 3D printing is coming into play in relief efforts, however, as fixes such as for pipe fittings can have a big impact.

“When government or charities go and do maintenance in these remote towns, you often get out there and don’t have the specific parts you need in the right sizes,” said Rankin. “And the travel to these sites, it makes it really expensive. These waterpipe parts have been prohibitively expensive in the Solomons.”

The team faced an extra challenge in the cyclone conditions affecting the island while they were there. At one point, Dr. Mohammed found himself holding on to a 3D printer to protect it from the storm as it continued to print out parts needed for the pipe.

“All the stuff around me was just flying around — and I’m holding this printer down as it’s printing out the part we needed to fix the pipe,” he said. “But a Yorkshire man never worries.”

The resilient 3D printer churned out the necessary parts in the middle of the storm, and as rain poured down, the team slid the 3D printed connectors onto the pipe for a perfect fit.

Eventually, the 3D printers will come with a library of 3D printable parts so that the locals can print what they need themselves, without any training required. All they need to do is feed the plastic into the machine, select the item they want, and then press print. The 3D printer runs off solar power, requiring only manual labor to crush the plastic.

The team is now working to commercialize the printer, which Dr. Mohammed believes that he can do for less than $10,000 a unit.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Source: Sydney Morning Herald / Images: Dr. Mazher Mohammed]


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