Established and emerging African economies  - especially South Africa - can potentially leapfrog other manufacturing-focused economies by focusing more on mass 3D printing manufacturing in the future - especially as it has the potential to revolutionise the healthcare sector with fast, cost-effective solutions.

This is according to Paul Fotheringham, the founder of 3D Life Prints, speaking at the recent 6th annual Africa Health Exhibition & Congress after donating a 3D-printed hand and forearm to Mpho Maduwane, along with partners Enable Community Foundation - a global network of volunteers who focus on providing 3D-printed prosthetics to those most in need. “15-year-old Maduwane, who was born without lower legs and forearms, said she did not fully understand what a 3D printed arm would look like until she saw it in person,” says Fotheringham.

“It will help me to write neatly,” says Maduwane, “and it will help to push myself [in my wheelchair] because it is difficult to go up and down amps. I’m thankful, really thankful.”

Fotheringham, says it is always rewarding to see how lives can be improved through the use of 3D technologies. “We want to make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people, but it’s about how you get to that scale. I believe many African countries will soon leapfrog traditional manufacturing methods and infrastructure and go directly into mass 3D printing manufacturing,” he says.

Jade Myers, Senior Lab Manager at MAGIC ACT e-NABLE Lab and volunteer with the Enable Community Foundation, says it was humbling to be a part of the donation made to Maduwane. “It is very touching, every single time, to see it [the prosthetic] is useful to somebody and that it is literally life changing is wonderful,” she says.

Myers says the use of 3D printing is the future of healthcare and that she is currently working on a thought-activated prosthetic hand. This consists of a wireless headset, which can be discretely hidden under a stocking cap that will send electronic signals to the prosthetic. “Each signal would be categorised and assigned to different movements.”

Fotheringham says that he expects the use of 3D technologies to boom as it provides fast, cost-effective solutions to the healthcare industry. “For example, it is possible to print a prosthetic in two days as compared to two weeks with traditional methods, at a fraction of the cost. Cost is crucial, especially in low income regions as a child who receives a prosthetic at the age of five will need to change the prosthetic limb 17 times over the course of a lifetime as he or she grows. 3D-printed prosthetics can also be made with additional functionality, such as the gripping of a hand, with materials that can be locally sourced. This is important to maintaining the functionality of the hand, especially in rural areas.”

However, Fotheringham explains that 3D printing also goes beyond prosthetics. “The potential for 3D printed surgical tools and equipment such as scalpels and incubators for premature babies is massive.” Fotheringham points to the fact that drones, which can be 3D printed, except for the motors and batteries, are being used in countries such as Rwanda to deliver medical supplies. “3D printed drones can also be used to locate missing people in hazardous search and rescue operations, where every second counts to save someone’s life.”

Fotheringham says in order to reach a point where 3D printing is rolled out to public health, however, there needs to be collaboration and buy-in from the top levels of governments. Fotheringham and Myers both say that the Africa Health Exhibition & Congress was extremely worthwhile as it provided a platform in which they could meet leaders in healthcare and share knowledge and experiences.

With a strong focus on charity at the Africa Health, Informa Life Sciences Group Africa – organisers of the event – also handed over a cheque for R450 520 to CHOC, the official charity of Africa Health 2016 and an organisation dedicated to supporting parents of children with cancer. All delegate fees that were collected during Africa Health went to the donation.

Informa also handed over a cheque for R38 000 to the Academy of Nursing of South Africa, which was made possible by the proceeds of the Nursing Conference at Africa Health.