How 3D Printing Can Help Save Lives

Posted by Heather Freitag
March 18, 2015
Neighborhood Flooded by Heavy Rains in West Java, Indonesia

It takes just 6 inches of moving water to knock a person to the ground. Flash floods, as their name suggests, come on quickly. But given the proper tools, experts can make flood predictions using real-time measurements and give warnings to get people out of harm’s way.

The problem is, many flood-prone countries cannot afford enough of these expensive weather systems to properly monitor the weather.

Floods were the most deadly natural disaster in 2013, accounting for nearly half of the natural disaster-related deaths. [USAID/OFDA Photo]

Since 1997, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA) has been partnering with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to find an affordable way to help developing countries predict and prepare for bad weather. Recently, they’ve been looking for ways to improve weather observation.

Commercial weather stations can have a price tag in the tens of thousands of dollars, with maintenance and repairs piling on additional costs. Repairs also require expensive technicians, if replacement parts are even available. To make matters worse, critical pieces often become discontinued, forcing countries to purchase a completely new weather station

New technology is providing a solution. As it turns out, 3D printers are able to produce almost all the parts needed to manufacture reliable, accurate weather stations. Add in low-cost electronic sensors, and you’ve got a station–all for around $200.

Kelly Sponberg, a program manager with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) Joint Office of Science Support (JOSS) working with NOAA, spearheaded the Micro-Manufacturing and Assembly project to develop a range of affordable meteorological tools.

“In the U.S., weather is very accessible,” Sponberg said. “You can turn on the news, look online, or use an app on your phone. It’s easy to take for granted the ability to check the weather. But in many developing countries, weather forecasting has been limited because of the high cost of weather systems. I wanted to change that by finding an affordable way for countries to predict and prepare for weather.”

The 3D printing technology will be showcased this week at the 3rd UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, where thousands have gathered to discuss the best ways to reduce the catastrophic toll of disasters

Don’t let its humble looks fool you – this 3D-printed weather station will help developing countries forecast weather-related disasters and save lives. [Kelly Sponberg, NOAA Photo]

Here's  how it works. First, Martin Steinson, a UCAR JOSS project manager and mechanical engineer, creates 3D computer designs for every part of a weather station. Then, a microwave-sized 3D printer turns these designs into reality–melting thick coils of plastic into thin threads that layer on top of one another to form the components of a fully functional, sophisticated weather station. The printing is so precise that once all the pieces are printed, they can be assembled by hand and the new weather station finally brought online.

In the field, the station collects measurements related to temperature, pressure, humidity, rainfall and wind that are stored in a tiny computer about the size of an iPhone. From here, the data can be transmitted to weather experts, who will use it for their forecasts. As the program evolves, additional sensors may be added, like ones to take soil measurements, which could be used to help farmers increase their yields.

Raspberry Pi, a computer the size of an iPhone, can hold a year’s worth of weather information collected from a 3D-printed station. [Heather Freitag, USAID/OFDA Photo]

"The bottom line is that 3D printing will help to save lives,” said Sezin Tokar, a hydrometeorologist with USAID/OFDA. “Not only can they provide countries with the ability to more accurately monitor for weather-related disasters, the data they produce can also help reduce the economic impact of disasters.”

The 3D-printed weather stations are undergoing testing to make sure they are durable and will meet international standards. Once testing is complete, pilot projects will be established in one or two countries.

The hope is that Zambia will become the first country to work with the Micro-Manufacturing and Assembly project. This summer, after receiving extensive training, Zambia’s National Weather Service will be provided with laptops loaded with the 3D designs for each individual part, along with several 3D printers and all the tools and materials required. Countries will have the flexibility to print additional weather stations whenever their budget allows. And if any piece breaks, partners will be able to print a new one. Then, Sponberg said, it’s “as simple as switching out a lightbulb.”

From March 14 to 18, USAID staff have joined thousands at the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan to discuss the best ways to reduce the catastrophic toll of disasters. In 2013 alone, natural disasters took the lives of more than 22,000 people, affected nearly 97 million others, and caused almost $118 billion in economic damages.

About the Author: Heather Freitag serves as an Online Communications Specialist with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.

Editor's Note: This blog entry originally appeared on the USAID Impact blog.


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