It’s always exciting and inspiring to hear testimonials from customers across the globe. Paola De Cecco lives in Uganda where she has developed courses for training students on how to build solar electronics for rural households. Below is her inspirational story in her own words (English, her third language).

By Paola De Cecco, Instructor, www.emiu.org
www.villageenergyuganda.com

village-energy

I started a project the last year with the mission of creating a local manufacturing industry for small solar products, such as rechargeable lanterns, phone chargers, AA rechargers. Basically electronics powered by small solar panels that would provide basic energy services in rural areas, as long as local expertise was available. In my experience in the water development sector, you cannot introduce a new technology in rural areas unless you have technicians able to handle it at the village level.

To achieve that I created a course training students on vocational engineering and business (www.emiu.org ), where they learned how to size and build solar electronics for rural households. The course had also some basic business and accounting class, as the idea was that those students will be able to venture out starting small rural businesses. I had 34 students that learned very quickly how to build the electronics, but in the middle of the course I realized I had no plan for where to put the electronics, namely how to make the casing for it. We experiment with wood, and local weaved materials, but despite how adorable these items appeared to my western eyes, it became clear quickly that unless the products were designed with a more appealing look, the students would not be able to market them. Despite attempts to educate people n the value of locally manufactured, it became clear that I needed to come up with a better strategy.

Suleiman assembling the Printrbot Plus

Suleiman assembling the Printrbot Plus

 

Frank designing the case for electronics and lights, slicing it

Frank designing the case for electronics and lights, slicing it

 

I therefore started looking for business opportunities within local business for the students I had trained, and successfully placed some of them with local companies. Around the time I started considering experimenting with 3D printers, I met the founders of Village Energy,  www.villageenergyuganda.com .  Their vision was very well aligned with mine, especially regarding local manufacturing and developing decentralized micro-factories/rural tech center operating as micro-franchise of Village Energy. They attempted to manufacture locally using aluminum enclosures which unfortunately are perceived as the wooden ones I made with my students.

We agreed to join forces in creating a line of good looking products that was locally manufacturable, with the idea of raise money to setup appropriate local manufacturing. That is where 3D printing came in. I believe that 3D printing might have interesting applications in countries such as Uganda where manufacturing objects is simply not an option right now. I did buy a Rapidbot3.0 and Printrbot donated the Jr. and the Plus. Our goal was to manufacture a small system, providing one light, charging phone and allowing for a 5V and 3.5V output to recharge other small appliances such as radios/shavers.

prints

 

The original wood parts on the left and the newly designed 3D printed parts on the right

The original wood parts on the left and the newly designed 3D printed parts on the right

 

Frank with the first 3D printed prototype to replace a kerosene lantern and charges one phone per day

Frank with the first 3D printed prototype to replace a kerosene lantern and charges one phone per day

The challenge is that none of us had any mechanical engineering skill or previous experience with 3D printers. So the learning curve has been quite steep and based to reinventing the wheel.  Since I believe no technology is long lived in developing countries unless it is mastered by local people, I set to work from the beginning with the human resources available … which were the night guard at Village Energy (Frank) and Suleiman (who came in every day at 6pm after working his first two jobs).  You might think that this was an odd choice, yet despite the fact that people here love learning new things as they can see the prospect for future work, they cannot spend the time to volunteer easily as they MUST work or look for occasional jobs to support themselves and the people that depend on them – which in Africa can amount to 3-4 people between elder and younger brothers and sisters.

Unfortunately nor I nor Village Energy has the ability to pay salaries at this point….so you work with what you have. Note both Sula and Frank are very bright young persons and learn really quickly despite life odds.  I am pointing these things out because it is something nobody in the west seems to understand.  Anyway thanks to Rachel Wilmoth – a Santa Clara mechanical engineering student that interned at Village Energy for 6 weeks, now Frank can use google sketchup, Sula understand the mechanics of the printers and we succeeded to print what you have seen in the photographs I have sent.

We manage to print, but not without problems. Despite multiple attempts, finding the right slicing parameters to have proper extrusion has defetead us. Basicaly after every ½ hour the filament get stuck and we need to pause, cleanup and restart, which leaves ugly seams and forces somebody to constantly sit and watch the printers over jobs that last up to 8 hours. We have tried to reach out to the community, and we hope we will find a 3D printing expert interested in mentoring us remotely, somebody we can skype with and willing to try and print on his/her printer our work.  We also need a bit of help with the mechanical drawings, because we do not seem to be very good at designing latches, hinges and other mechanism that work.

I do hope overtime we will get better, and the next problem to solve is how to make the filament locally. I have enlisted 4 Santa Clara students to design a filament maker from recycled plastic, which they will develop as they senior design project next year and I am following Tyler development of the filabot.

Village Energy Team: from the back - left to right Frank (night guard), Steven (lead technician) Paola, Rachel, Abu (founder and CEO) In front: Collins (CFO)

Village Energy Team: from the back – left to right Frank (night guard), Steven (lead technician) Paola, Rachel, Abu (founder and CEO) In front: Collins (CFO)