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Streamlining Humanitarian Aid with Additive Manufacturing at Oxfam

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After the devastating Nepal earthquake, Oxfam used 3D printing to provide faster aid. This post explores that example as well as the other ways that 3D printing can revolutionize the supply chains of humanitarian organizations.

Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is revolutionizing manufacturing across many industries, making customization more affordable and allowing for rapid design iteration.  Humanitarian aid organizations can make drastic improvements to their supply chain by embracing this technology for both its capacity for customization and its on-demand production capabilities.  Oxfam International, a charitable organization dedicated to eliminating global poverty, has experimented with 3D printers in providing aid after natural disasters, and is an excellent example of how this technology can improve speed and quality of emergency aid.

Emergencies such as natural disasters and war create immediate need for goods in areas with rudimentary or compromised infrastructure, which complicates all aspects of the supply chain, including procurement, shipping, storage, and distribution.  Rapidly acquiring the correct goods and delivering them to disaster-struck areas commonly results in aid arriving days after it was needed with some goods broken or missing.  In moving supply much closer to the point of demand[1], additive manufacturing impacts and streamlines each part of the supply chain.  It eliminates waste created by delivering unnecessary goods, increases the speed of delivery, and decreases shipping costs.  It is estimated that “60 to 80 per cent of the cost of humanitarian aid is spent on logistics,”[2] each year, meaning that there is opportunity for additive manufacturing to divert billions of dollars from delivery costs to actual aid.

Oxfam International began experimenting with using additive manufacturing to delivery aid in 2015, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Nepal.  Many villages had lost their only source of clean water due to broken water pipes, and while standard aid packages included pipe repair kits, often there were pieces that were missing, broken, or incompatible with the local pipes[3].  Typically, locals would “fashion their own insecure connections using bamboo, plastic bags or rubber from tires, which lead to loss of pressure at the taps and potentially to contamination of the water supply.”[4]  By using a 3D printer to create new parts that fit perfectly, Oxfam removed waste from its process in two ways.  First, it decreased the time to repair the water system from multiple days to two to three hours[5], and second, by preserving the clean water source, it reduced the need for medical treatment and clean water, freeing up both money and space for Oxfam to use on other vital aid.

While Oxfam’s implementation of additive manufacturing had an immediate impact on communities and the organization’s logistics costs, there are both opportunities and challenges in continuing to use this technology.  Providing disaster aid is a good start, but a larger impact can be made by embedding 3D printing technology into local communities for long-term use.  Oxfam has plans to train local residents to operate the printers, with the assumption that even outside of times of disaster, having the ability to create custom parts and medical supplies locally would save time for residents[6] and continue to streamline the organization’s supply chain.  However, Oxfam will need to overcome some significant hurdles including cost and durability of the printers[7] and the training of users.  As adoption of additive manufacturing increases, costs of the technology will likely drop, so Oxfam should focus on training community members to use the printers.  As many of these communities don’t have regular access to computers, Oxfam will need to train users not only to use the printers, but also the computers. The best course of action is to keep the process simple in the beginning, with users being trained to print a few items, and then accessing online trainings to learn the computer modeling skills necessary to create more customized printable designs.

With logistics challenges acting as a key bottleneck in the delivery of humanitarian aid, additive manufacturing has the potential to drastically improve access to clean water and healthcare by streamlining the supply chain of aid organizations.  The possibilities are endless, but with limited resources for implementation, a few questions remain.  Why will villages adopt this technology over alternative low-tech solutions that they have traditionally used?  Is Oxfam’s strategy to focus on training community members in 3D printing going to provide enough of a short-term impact to make the investment worthwhile?


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[1] Deloitte Insights, “3D opportunity for life: Additive manufacturing takes humanitarian action,” [], accessed November 2018.

[2] UN Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs, “Shrinking the Supply Chain: Hyperlocal Manufacturing and 3D printing in Humanitarian Response” (PDF File), downloaded from OCHA website,, Accessed November 12, 2018

[3] Peter Tatham, Jennifer Loy, and Umberto Peretti, “3D printing (3DP): A humanitarian logistic game changer?,” paper presented at the 12th ANZAM Operations, Supply Chain, and Services Management Symposium, 2014,

[4] Kelli Rogers, “In Nepal, Oxfam earmarks earthquake respond funds for 3-D printing,” Devex International Development, November 14, 2016, [], accessed November 2018.

[5] Tatham et al., 2014.

[6] Rogers, 2016.

[7] OCHA, 2015.

13 thoughts on “Streamlining Humanitarian Aid with Additive Manufacturing at Oxfam

  1. I think this is a very interesting way to show how 3D printing can have significant social impact. My question is similar to the ones you pose – while this is a great concept, how long will it take before 3D printing technology becomes affordable enough that it can actually be used by the global community? While it may always be slightly more expensive than more traditional means of delivering aids, at what point is the added benefit of speed worth the cost increase? It sounds like non-profits like Oxfam International will play an important role in promoting this technology for social impact use as it continues to develop.
    In addition to using 3D printing in times of disaster, I think it could be used more broadly in impoverished communities to address everyday problems (such as homelessness;

  2. Very insightful thoughts. I had no idea that additive manufacturing was being used in such fantastic applications as this. I believe that you hit the nail right on the head with regard to the potential downsides – costs and training. But, I would add in an additional risk and say that an organization’s risk will also have to be taken into consideration. If you are just an emergency relief organization, you will need the 3D printing machine for future emergency relief missions therefore you cannot leave your 3D printing machine behind. Then, how would the organization react if negative press is released? Should the organization just leave 3D printers behind? If so, they will have to use a large portion of proceeds to replenish their capabilities.

  3. Thank you for a great article. I fully agree with you that the short term impact of fully embedding 3D printing into local communities by training community members could be limited. To me, 3D printing as of today is still primarily used for prototyping rather than mass producing a variety of different pieces. Additionally, the logistics of housing and operating a fleet of 3D printers is also no easy feat and currently predominantly achieved by large industrial companies such as GE, which acquired two 3D printing companies just recently. Hence, even if community members could get trained on the technology, a meaningful impact increase is likely still out of reach currently.

  4. Training villagers and providing 3D printers in humanitarian sites does not solve the logistical challenges here. It just pushes it earlier in the supply chain. The real challenge here is to find ways to supply 3D printer feedstock with locally sourced materials. Oxfam isn’t the right party to solve that problem, but they can partner with tech companies who might have the capabilities to do so.

  5. What a great, alternative application of additive manufacturing! To your question, I think that the only way local villages will be incentivized to use 3D-printing over alternative low-tech solutions is through education and capital investment with the help of outside organization like Oxfam. These local villages need to see its benefits, how it can work in their villages, and also receive financing assistance to invest in the technology themselves. I would recommend that Oxfam seek a for-profit partner specializing in 3D printing to help them roll this out.

  6. Really insightful article, thank you! I can see potential uses of this method from an entrepreneurial perspective. OxFam should explore the possibility of setting up small shops – managed and operated by local employees – who can 3D print tools and materials on demand for local customers. This would reduce the number of people who’d need to be trained to use the printers to just a small group of staff. Additionally, it would provide an income source for those people. OxFam could continue its social enterprise model by fully or partially subsidizing the price of the good to the end customer. I’m hesitant to believe that 3D printers should be set up and ready to be used by locals in time of disaster. I can see that causing more chaos than solutions. I think OxFam needs to maintain a level of control over their use overall.

  7. Thank you for your insightful article, it was really interesting to learn about how this new technology can be applied in unexpected areas-specifically disaster relief. Especially in developing countries where infrastructure can disrupt important aid distribution and repair, I enjoyed reading about how 3D printing can be applied to help solve the issue of first repair and ultimately the underlying medical issue of proving a clean water source to prevent the spread of disease. Like you, I appreciate how additive manufacturing has the potential to streamline the supply chain of aid organizations. However, I have two main concerns. The first is whether or not the exhorbant cost of 3D printing is the best use of resources or could money be better spent elsewhere. Secondly, is there true sustainability for maintaining a 3D printer for further community development?

  8. Really appreciate this article – it was inspiring to see how Oxfam is using these new technologies for social impact. I see a lot of challenges that Oxfam has to overcome for this to be useful for the communities that is in. First, I imagine that the technology of 3D printing is currently very expensive – how long will it take for this technology to be at a price where it can be implemented and scaled around the region? Furthermore, one of the arguments that was presented was that this reduces logistics and transportation costs. I’m worried that in a disaster scenario that the printers themselves would also be affected and not be able to serve their purpose. In addition, I think Oxfam ought to also consider the inputs needed for the 3D printers, and make sure that they are thinking about the full supply chain if they were to provide these printers and educate the local community. Finally, I think having the communities adaption of the technology will be difficult. I would probably think about targeting issues such as education and use of computers first before introducing things like 3D printers.

    While I think there is a lot of potential for this to be increasingly beneficial for the communities it serves, I think there are of hurdles both from a capital and cultural perspective that need to be considered.

  9. This application of 3D printing is very impressive and inspiring! In the end, the author questions whether training community members will provide enough impact to make the investment worthwhile. I believe it will be very hard to train the community members, and especially to encourage continuous learning through online training. Only in Nepal, there are 123 Nepalese languages spoken as first language therefore it would probably be very difficult to prepare training for a such a diverse public. On the other side, preparing training in so many different languages would be very costly. On top of that, if people are not familiar with computers, they probably need to be trained in very basic topics, besides 3D printing itself, further increasing the costs. So finally, while the application of 3D printing by humanitarian organizations has been successful, I’m afraid it will be very challenging to foster adoption by community members.

  10. This application of 3D printing is creative and inspiring, but I have some concerns regarding how feasibly this can be expanded to developing communities at scale. As you mention, any developing communities lack access to a computer- on top of that or as a result, they also have limited experience working with such complex technology. Even if this were affordable for developing communities, I wonder how the infrastructure would work- who would be in charge of maintaining the system, learning the system and training others? 3D printers are complex to operate and can break easily, so I would be worried about long-term maintenance as well as adoption.

  11. A very interesting read and thank you so much for your time!
    Access to clean water and healthcare is a crucial fundamental need for human and additive manufacturing clearly have the potential to push forward with this. On the point of resource lacking, once we’re able to spearheaded and show that additive manufacturing works, it will become more popular.

  12. This is a great example of a situation where 3D printing can provide value for people who don’t necessarily care too much about quality. I would imagine this organization would have to partner with many villages to understand typical use cases of the product and potentially have one of these set up with an easily usable UI in a central part of the village. I don’t think this has to be used only in emergencies and imagine it could provide value in daily life as well. Villagers, though many likely don’t have mobile phones, would be able to quickly adopt the technology, given that the product is designed with the consumer in mind.

  13. You mixed two topics that I’m extremely interested about, in a way haven´t heard before. While I was aware of 3d printing and many of its uses and advantages, i’ve never thought about it to solve natural disaster emergencies or re-build places after a war. The datapoint about 80% of the aid spent in logistics really made your main point about the advantage of 3d printing much stronger. Based on the characteristics of 3D printing, I see it can have a long term impact similar to internet and the computer, allowing the next level of “globalization”. I have two main questions that come to my mind when thinking about how 3d printing will shape our future. First, what is going to happen with the uses of 3d printing where it replaces manual labor. Secondly, how will the logistics industry will be affected, as we could easily reach a point where moving the machine is cheaper than moving the products.

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