3D Printing & Digital Fabrication to Play a Significant Role in World Sustainability


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While sustainability for the future is a fascinating subject, it is also a critical one as we must do our best to help those currently in need in developing countries, look forward for the next generations, and protect the planet. Researchers Lucia Corsini and James Moultrie explore needs in humanitarian and development aid, explaining that demand has increased to levels never seen before. Their findings are outlined in the recently published, ‘Design for Social Sustainability: Using Digital Fabrication in the Humanitarian and Development Sector.’

With the obvious outpouring of innovation via 3D printing and additive manufacturing, along with other techniques like CNC milling and laser cutting, many new concepts, prototypes, and products are available.

Approach for creating framework on Design for Social Sustainability (DfSS) in Digital Fabrication for Development (DF4D).

The idea of helping within the humanitarian sector is an attractive—and noble—idea to many, meaning that many are already benefiting from items like:

  • Emergency shelter and disaster relief devices
  • Prosthetics
  • Medical tools
  • Spare parts
  • Communications infrastructure

Sustainability, despite its critics, has become a field of interest that has risen above being called a ‘green agenda’ or by many, an effort to shift the burden. The authors point out that while there is little instruction or guidance regarding design for social sustainability, it is also a ‘poorly understood concept’ for many today. Design for Social Sustainability (DfSS) requires more than just a desire to help, but also design approaches, knowledge of technology like 3D printing, and a framework, much of which should be built on previous case studies.

Sustainability issues are highly interwoven with complicated social values, described by the authors as follows:

“…the preservation of the social system, where people are not subject to structural obstacles to health, influence, competence, impartiality and meaning-making.”

Industrial design plays a large role in sustainability, whether in economics, social issues, or environmental. The authors reviewed existing literature and focused on thematic analysis to help them find the most explicit and implicit themes, allowing them to understand data better. They also identified three DfSS case studies to examine and compile helpful data. Each case study had to offer digital fabrication targeting projects for lower-income countries, along with being sufficiently ongoing to offer live data (healthcare is a good example).

The authors interviewed numerous individuals involved with case studies, providing data for later assessment.

“A code hierarchy was created based on the 15 themes and 36 sub-themes identified from the DfSS literature,” stated the researchers. “During the first cycle of coding, line by line coding of the interview transcripts was conducted, resulting in 448 coded segments. Additional codes were created, and existing codes were also updated to reflect the language used by the interviewees.

“The DfSS framework was then used to evaluate the selected DF4D projects from the case studies.”

(a) Shifting towards more system-focused and radical Design for Social Sustainability; (b) positioning DfSS within the broader sustainability context.

The case studies involved the following:

  • 3D Printing a Spare Part for a Suction Pump Machine
  • 3D Printing or CNC Milling a Socket for a Leg Prosthetic
  • Digitally Fabricating a Low-Cost Suction Pump Machine

In examining the case studies, the authors found a trend toward local production, along with the opportunity to effect change in responding to ‘explicit demand for products,’ along with integrating new was to create jobs locally promoting further empowerment.

“These projects reveal how DF4D can create systems-focused and radical social sustainability. In contrast, the first case study (3D printed spare part for a suction pump machine) results in limited advancement of local skills, local control and empowerment. This project provides a ‘quick win’ solution which is relatively incremental and user focused. Overall, this comparison draws attention to the need for more long-term, open ended solutions in which sustainability is embedded early on.”

While many previous ‘interventions’ have failed in bringing permanent sustainability concepts forward, the DfSS framework shows that technology like digital fabrication can support sustainability. The authors realize they are studying an emerging field with an increasing number of related projects around the world.

“Future work could replicate this work in a specific region or consider the relevance of these findings to non-humanitarian/development contexts. We urge researchers to examine the relevance of this DfSS framework more broadly, considering its application to the development of products that do not use digital fabrication tools,” concluded the researchers.

“Overall, this study shows how design can trigger social sustainability at product, process and paradigm levels. Our findings signal a shift from user-related to systems-related, and from incremental to radical social sustainability. We argue that an iterative and holistic approach to sustainability is needed, that begins by examining the social dimension first. For practitioners working on DF4D projects, we provide a useful framework to help plan and evaluate projects, to support Design for Socially Sustainability.”

Sustainability through 3D printing leads to exciting innovations that can actually make a difference in the world, from recycling materials and even 3D printing filaments to products like concept tires that could be game-changers for motorists, printing in space, and so much more.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts! Join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at

Design for Social Sustainability framework, for DF4D projects.Design for Social Sustainability framework, for DF4D projects.

[Source / Images: ‘Design for Social Sustainability: Using Digital Fabrication in the Humanitarian and Development Sector’]


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