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Science Technology and Environment

Helping Haiti, In 3-D


Three years after a devastating earthquake, Haiti is still struggling to recover. The disaster killed health workers, flattened clinics, and the already poor country quickly ran short of medical supplies. Despite massive amounts of aid, needs remain. Critical medical instruments, for example, are difficult to import. But what if they could be produced with the push of a button?

Well, one American aid group has come up with an unlikely solution: using 3D printing technology.

Ashley Dara is with iLab Haiti and she just returned from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. She joined us from her home in San Francisco.

So first off, Ashley, if you don't mind explaining for those who don't know, how does 3-D printing work?

ASHLEY DARA: 3D printing is very similar to 2-D printing that we have at home, in the sense that when we use inkjet printers at home, the inkjet leaves out one layer of ink onto our paper. Except with 3D printers, when we lay out a layer of ink or plastic - in this case - it's layer by layer and it's built up into a 3-D model. It's very similar to when we use a hot glue gun, except instead of the hot glue sticks, it's a spool of plastic filament that continuously is melted through the nozzle and builds up an object layer by layer.

MARTIN: Who are you teaching to use this technology and what are they making?

DARA: Right now, we're working in Port-au-Prince at a resource center called Haiti Communitere. It's an area where a lot of locals from Cite Soleil come into work to learn new life skills and job skills. And while I was in Haiti last year, a dear friend of mine was running a hospital all by herself with limited resources. One night she wound up having to deliver five babies and they had no umbilical cord clamps, so they were using their own rubber gloves, cutting them to tie off the umbilical cords, which meant that they went through their rubber gloves and had to then deliver babies barehanded with women that were HIV-positive.

And all I could think was, wow, if we had a 3-D printer, I could've been printing on-demand umbilical cord clamps for you. So now our guys, or our students that we work with, are actually learning how to make very simple medical devices.

MARTIN: So something like an umbrella cord clamp, have those devices been used? Are they working? What are the limitations?

DARA: So right now they're working. But to be honest with you, we're on our fourth iteration. Currently we are using ABS plastic, which is the same plastic LEGOS are made out of. So if you've ever stepped on one you know how hard they are.


DARA: We want to make sure that they're safe on human skin. So I'm not - we haven't actually tried them on humans yet. I just want to make that clear.


DARA: But we are definitely - we tried them among a multitude of different like fibers and cloths and liquid bags and plastic bags.

MARTIN: Have you articulated for yourself long-term goals for this project?

DARA: We're still - actually we're still working on those. Of course, we have huge goals. Ideally, we'd like to take this iLab model and apply it to other countries. My personal dream is that we can have our guys from Cite Soleil teaching people in Kenya how to operate the machines.

MARTIN: Ashley Dara is with iLab Haiti. She joined us on the line from her home in San Francisco. Ashley, thanks so much for talking with us.

DARA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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