At noon on 17 September, a small printer resting on the wing of a Land Rover parked in a Nepalese valley finally ceased its quiet whirring. The fruit of its labours – a bright blue plastic cylinder 10cm long and 4cm wide – may not have been much to look at, but its creation was enough to delight Andrew Lamb. It could also transform the way the world responds to humanitarian disasters.
The previous day, Lamb and a colleague from the technology-focused NGO Field Ready had visited a camp in Bahrabise, central Nepal, where 200 families left homeless by the earthquakes in April and May were still stranded.
They noticed that many of the water pipes flown in as part of the relief effort were missing fittings and washers, leaving them leaking or badly patched with plastic bags, gaffer tape or even bicycle tyre inner tubes.
That night Lamb’s co-worker, Mark Mellors, spent 45 minutes designing a water fitting on his laptop. The next morning, they drove back to the camp, connected the computer to a 3D printer powered by the battery of their Land Rover – and waited.
After two hours, the printer was done and the fitting ready.
“We put it on the pipe and, hey presto, it worked,” says Lamb, who is Field Ready’s engineering adviser.
“The hairs on the back of your neck stand up because you realise that you’re on to something here. Everybody standing around watching us – the water engineers, the local partner, the chap from Oxfam, the local social committee – were just watching, going, ‘This makes sense. This is what we need’.”
Not only had Lamb and Mellors solved the problem of the leaking pipes, they had also proved that 3D printers can be used on the ground in disaster relief.
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