Farmers in Myanmar are 3D Printing Their Own Tools
| by Josh Snider
By Taiei Harimoto, Product Design Manager at Proximity Designs
Farming is backbreaking work, and farming in Myanmar can be especially hard due to the country’s low annual incomes (around $600 USD), poor infrastructure and access to quality tools. As a designer at Proximity Designs, a Yangon based social enterprise that’s innovating high-quality farming equipment to serve the country’s agrarian economy, I’ve seen these challenges first hand.
Like the farmers we support, Proximity Designs has a tough job. We need to keep manufacturing costs low, but up until recently had to rely extensively on metal machining for prototyping — which is slow and expensive. In late 2015, we learned about MakerBot from a former design fellow of the firm, Zachary Gould, and reached out to learn more and see if a 3D printer could address some of the prototyping challenges in our product development cycle. They donated a printer to observe the impact it could have on engineering challenges in the field.
Proximity Designs was founded in 2004 to provide locally designed, income generating products for rural smallholder farmers, which make up a majority of Myanmar’s workforce. Over the course of nearly 14 years, our products and services have enabled the generation of over $276 million in revenue for more than 102,000 rural households. By working directly with the farmers we serve, our engineers and designers get detailed and immediate feedback before our products go to market.
“Having the Replicator changed a lot of fundamental things about the research and development process,” Gould, our former fellow and mechanical engineer, says. The printer played a central role, for example, “when we needed to nail down the dimensions of specific components of a project, especially crucial parts that affected the overall alignment of the product such as spacing rings.”
Without access to computer-controlled machining, even critical parts such as welding fixtures had to be machined by hand—a painstaking process whenever working with tight tolerances.
Gould explains that the majority of the vendors we work with have little-to-no experience using CAD software, and conversations over 2D drawings about yet-to-be-created parts were not always intuitive. “With printed parts in hand, we were surprised how straightforward conversations with vendors became.”
We’ve always relied on local manufacturing resources in Myanmar. While the makers in Myanmar are unbelievably resourceful, we’ve often been limited by slow and inefficient manual machining, especially for prototyping when speed is key. As our products have become more sophisticated and complex, the lack of high-precision prototyping options compounded this inefficiency.
“The design team no longer needed to wait for precision, manually-machined parts,” Gould adds. “Prototypes were quickly adapted and repaired with 3D printed components, providing more opportunities to test the parts in the field. We can get valuable feedback and improve on previous designs faster.”
The capability to adapt and prototype faster with a 3D printer increases our ability to address the needs of rural households across Myanmar.
In the past, we would have done our best in CAD, ordered machined samples from abroad, shipped them back to Myanmar to test and iterate. Completing one cycle would have taken a month, with high machining and shipping costs. The 3D printed parts helped us to physically try the assembly processes and refine designs before committing to orders of thousands of aluminum parts from abroad — resulting in huge time and cost savings.
Proximity’s team will continue to incorporate our MakerBot in future prototyping work. Having access to the speed, reliability, and versatility of a 3D printer will enable us to evolve alongside dynamic shifts in technology, helping us to continue designing life-changing products for Myanmar’s future farmers.
[This story was originally featured in Make Magazine]