Kenya: How Innovators Are Using 3D Printing to Make Medical Parts

(file photo).
25 August 2020

The purring of machines ushers us into a well-designed lab, one of many office spaces inside the sleepy LakeHub tech incubation centre in Kisumu's leafy suburb of Milimani.

The 13 three-dimensional printers have been beautifully placed on shelves, with each humming to the rhythm of additive manufacturing, all coming from a command from a laptop resting on a table.

At one corner of the room are dozens of face shields, tens of packs of ear savers and contact-less door handles while on another one, various medical equipment parts are well arranged on a table.

Daisy Achieng, who has just come from a delivery errand at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga Teaching and Referral Hospital (JOOTRH), tells us she has delivered over 3,000 3D printed medical units in the past week alone.

10,000 face shields

David Oginga, the resident engineer, reveals that, in the past five months the start-up -- Kijenzi 3D -- has churned out over 10,000 face shields and 5,000 ear relievers in the ongoing war against Covid-19.

The 27-year-old biomedical engineer says Kijenzi 3D also uses the technology to produce parts for dialysis machines, microscope knobs, clutches, incubator latches and finger clamps, but on demand.

The beauty of 3D printing, David says, is the ability to manufacture customised items for hospitals faster while achieving enhanced quality and production volumes.

Compared to imported equipment that are expensive and take months to arrive, the innovation helps keep hospitals processes running once parts of crucial medical equipment wear out and need urgent replacement.

Free downloads

While most prototypes for 3D printing have been placed online for free downloads to help innovators around the world to print solutions for Covid-19, most of them, according to Elvis Ogweno, the production engineer, are just general designs for medical items that are common.

In Katoloni, 2.6kms from Machakos town, we found Nehemiah Mutie busy packaging ear savers and face shields as two of his four 3D printers' nozzles moved left and right, printing more savers.

The other two machines, he said, were awaiting clients who want to print their own equipment and parts from their homes, and he was putting a casing on them.

Nehemiah, who graduated from the University of Nairobi last year with a bachelors in mechanical engineering, joined the industry back in 2016 and has since grown his experience to the level of manufacturing the printers himself.

To print any object, a design or prototype is first created on a computer and the file saved on a memory card. The card is then inserted into a slot in the 3D printer after which the machine is commanded from a small LCD screen to print the file.

The material used for the printing is called a filament, and is made of soft plastic which is melted into a fine liquid. Continuous addition of tiny drops of this liquid on a board to ultimately create the desired object is what makes experts call 3D printing additive manufacturing. For huge objects, they are first allowed to cool off before removing them.

In Nairobi's 95 Limuru Road, we enter into Mehul Shah's offices and find him working on a prototype on his large screen. Before resorting to printing face shields and ear savers back in March, he used to print industrial objects including the tails of aeroplanes.

Covid-19

"When Covid-19 landed in Kenya, I decided to take it as my responsibility to help the government produce face shields and ear relievers as a lower cost," he tells us.

But at one point, in his ambition to print Y-splitters for air ventilators, he was stopped by officials from the Ministry of Health who warned him about the dangers of going ahead with the project.

"I had thought it was a nice idea to for a two or four splitter to allow one ventilator to be used by two or four patients but doctors advised that every air ventilator is meant for one patient and splitting the oxygen puts the lives of patients at great risk," says Mehul, who is the chief executive of Ultra Red Technologies, a startup he founded in 2014.

In Eldoret town, just past the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, you find St Lukes Orthopaedic and Trauma Hospital. Here, 3D printing is used to make prosthetic arms.

The initiative, which is being carried out in conjunction with Victoria Hand Project, a Canadian organisation, aims to help amputees regain function to improve their quality of life. The hospital charges only Sh20,000 for the entire procedure compared to Sh200,000 elsewhere.

Dr Kibor Lelei, the chief executive and a senior orthopaedic surgeon at the hospital, says an arm printed using the technology can be used for holding, grasping, cooking and lifting weight of up to two kilos.

Hurdles

However, this technology comes with its own set of hurdles.

The cost of filaments is one drawback that innovators are facing, as they still have to be imported.

Mehul has gone into an experimentation spree, testing various designs to print the filaments in Nairobi, thereby reducing their cost.

According to the innovators, the Kenya Bureau of Standards is another stumbling block as it takes too long to approve products that are in high demand.

"This industry needs care from the government. We expect their officers to inspect our products and technology and give us approvals in a shorter period. Not the three months that we are used to," says Nehemiah.

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