Maintaining a Small-scale 3D Printing Facility in Uganda




About: I spend my time somewhere between engineering and art.

On December 23rd, Emi Watanabe and I went to Kampala, Uganda for about 3 weeks. The goal of this trip was to work with Paola de Cecco and Village Energy to help fix the three 3D printers they have (a Rapidbot and two Printrbots), teach solid modeling skills, and work on the designs of the solar products they are creating. The purpose of these solar products is to enable local entrepreneurs by manufacturing the products locally, training cell phone technicians on how to use and set them up, and sell them to the more remote villages of Uganda that need them. We funded the trip with a crowdfunding campaign through a nonprofit organization, ReAllocate. We were funded mainly by family and friends, something that I find extraordinarily incredible and I appreciate so much.

The reason I went was because the opportunity to be helpful presented itself. Paola was in need and between the skills of Emi and myself, we hoped that we could be helpful. I have a degree in mechanical engineering but I'm doubtful that the skills necessary for a project like this are due to the lessons I learned in the classroom. The skills that are necessary are the skills I've learned through internet communities that are working on open source designs (both hardware and software). The skills I learned tinkering with electronics in a small apartment while going to school. The skills I have gained by growing up in a rural area, in which the idea of self reliance was deeply established in me by my parents. The skills I have gained by spending over two years teaching electronics, making, and troubleshooting to students aged 8 to 40 years old.

I'm hopeful that philanthropic endeavors will be the next progression of the maker movement. The time in which those of us who have learned so much and have been enabled in ways that we didn't think possible a few years ago, can go out and teach others, enabling them the same way that we have. The democratization of knowledge that has been given to us through the internet has allowed us to learn rapidly. Through internet-based open source projects like Arduino and Reprap, I foresee huge strides in what we, as a global society, can do. We now have the platforms to work together, determine and create possible solutions to real needs around the world. It is getting to the point were we don't even have to invest a lot of money or even time to begin doing it. We are so close that it is already starting to happen. By globally collaborating on these open source projects, we can build and change so much faster than any other point in history. 3D printers have been around for a few decades, but it took the open source style of development only a few years to turn it into a disruptive manufacturing movement. Cost has been drastically reduced, quality has increased hugely, and it has enabled large numbers of new businesses built on the creation of these machines. So, we have access to the knowledge, we are getting access to the tools. What are we going to build with them? At this point, I don't know, but it has the potential to be huge.


Step 1: Preparations

One of the hardest parts is trying to anticipate all of the tools and materials that will be necessary for the success of this trip. Before we went, we had a few Skype conversations with both Paola and Frank. In the last conversation, Paola said that we shouldn't anticipate being able to find anything we might need in Uganda. Tools, nuts, bolts, tape, micro USB cables, and more. There is also a limit as to what we can bring on the plane. I tried thinking of everything that would be good to have and this is the list I came up with and brought:

1 Kg of 1.75mm PLA - 2 rolls total
Printrboards - 2 total to replace the ones that had been fried out in a strong storm
1.75mm hot ends for the Printrbots - I wanted to set up all the printers to be using 1.75mm filament
Digital calipers
Micro USB cables - 2 total
Electrical tape - 3 rolls
Hex keys - both metric and SAE
Wire cutters and strippers
Flush cutter
DSO Nano Oscilloscope
Bag of zip ties
Screwdriver set
Small pliers set
Super glue - 6 tubes
Painter's Blue Tape - 5 pack
Vice Grip Pliers - Recommended by Michael Shiloh, a faculty member at CCA amongst many other things. I don't think I've ever seen someone so happy to see a tool than when Paola saw the vice grips.

I loaded all these supplies into a backpack along with a few clothes, miscellaneous cables that I had laying around, a small notebook/tablet computer, an inexpensive unlocked cellphone, malaria pills, and a camera. I took the BART to the airport trying to convince myself that, "I think I have everything I'll need....".

Step 2: Arriving and Getting Access to the Printers

We arrived in Entebbe, Uganda late on Christmas night. It had been about 40 hours since we had left San Francisco. When we got through customs, we went out and found Paola and Abu waiting for us. We greeted each other and walked to the car. I tried to make conversation with Abu on the way to the car. I was too tired to successfully to keep it going and became distracted by the smell of the moist air filled with a strong fragrance of exhaust fumes. We got in the car and Abu tried to pull out. The car didn’t move. We got out and saw that there was a boot over a wheel and a man with a gun casually walking towards us. The man with the gun claimed that we were parked in a no parking zone. Abu started to argue with him, saying that there were no signs. The man with the gun pointed to a completely different part of the parking lot and said there was a sign over there. The man with the gun demanded to see Abu’s driver’s license. Abu started to reach for his wallet and paused. He stood there motionless, staring at the man with the gun. I watched, not knowing what was going on. Did Abu have a license? Was it suspended? I’d rather not spend Christmas night in a jail in Uganda.

The man with the gun starting talking to Abu again, this time in a language I didn’t understand. After a couple of minutes, Abu pulled out his wallet and gave the man with the gun his Christmas present, 5000 shillings (about $2). He took off the boot and we climbed into the car. Paola turned around and said, “Welcome to Africa”. We drove back to Village Energy in Kampala and we were shown our beds. Frank, who is the night time security guard, was not around. His mother had come into town and bought construction materials to bring back to the village. He was obligated to escort the materials back to the village and was supposed to be back later that evening. We woke up with Frank still absent.

Paola arrived and took us out for coffee and chapati (fried bread). She had been trying to reach Frank all morning but he was still out of service. She was frantic to get a hold of him because he had locked the room with the 3D printers and taken the key with him. She decided that the door had to come down. She asked the man running the restaurant if he knew a carpenter that could take down a door. He paused and said yes. We went back to Village Energy. Emi had taken lessons in lock picking and we tried to find tools that she could use to pick the lock. Emi spent a few minutes trying before the man at the restaurant arrived with a brand new hammer. He carefully unwrapped the hammer, knelt down by the door, and started slamming it against the door lock. Paola yelled out, “This is Africa!” After twenty minutes of banging against the door, it finally burst open. Paola negotiated the price of repairing the door with the man and I took a first look at the three machines I was hoping to repair.

Step 3: Repairing the 3D Printers

I first took a look at the Rapidbot. Paola had told me that it had been the most reliable of the three before they all broke. I checked the tension of the belts which seemed fine. I took a look at the extruder and realized that it was a cheap design and there was something wrong with it. Trying to feed the filament in by hand was very difficult. We took it apart and found that the teflon tube insert had melted. The extruder gear also had a loose set screw. After switching it out with a new hot end and tightening everything up, it was starting to work with some consistency.

Frank arrived the next day. He was very apologetic for not being there earlier. I showed him what we had done the previous day and I could see how excited he was to get the machine back up and running. We started to print off whistles for calibration. I like to print off whistles because it tests out a few different things on the printers (makes sure everything is airtight, bridging the top layer, wall strength, etc.) and you can give them away afterwards.

The Printrbots had both been donated to them and they were relatively easy fixes. Both of them had been set up with 3mm hot end and for some reason Printrbot had sent them 1.75mm filament. So they had been trying to print with the 1.75mm filament through 3mm hot ends. The filament kept breaking off in the extruder halfway through the prints. I switched out the hot ends for both of the machines and the burned out Printrboards. The next few days were spent calibrating and refining the settings on the printers. Tedious, but it's how you get good quality prints. Printrbot has a decent getting started guide that outlines most of the processes to do this.

The Rapidbot was a bit suicidal the entire trip. It would be running well and then decide that the heating element in the extruder was going to self destruct. We'd fix that and the thermistor would decide to die. Fixed that. Ohhh another filament jam!

Frank was spending about half of his time working with me on the printers and the other half with Emi learning Solidworks. About halfway through the trip, with the printers functioning well, most of his time was spent on Solidworks.

Step 4: Kampala Living

Kampala is a busy place. Really busy. Anywhere you go there are always seems to be a lot of people around. Even in the countryside. You can be on a small dirt road in the middle of nowhere and there are people walking down the road. At one point I had to beg a taxi driver to pull off to the side of the road because I had to pee really bad. It seemed secluded, but of course halfway through the duty, someone appeared out of nowhere and watched me finish urinating.

The traffic is madness. Paola described it as a type of organized chaos, but it was hard to see the organization. The amount of activity that was always happening overwhelmed me, but I was always amazed by how Frank very casually walked through intersections where I was certain we would be killed. At one point Frank took us to the central market in Kampala. The place was completely packed with people in a huge maze. I had to keep my eye on Frank at all times because if I looked down, he could turn a corner and be gone. It happened once where I did lose him and Emi. I stopped, realized that I had no idea where I was, and started to panic. Of course he found me after about 30 seconds. I guess it is easy to spot the tall, skinny white guy with a panicked look.

Uganda is primarily inhabited by a young generation. It seems like everyone is in their early 20s or younger. Clubbing is a big activity there and many nights they'll dance until dawn. I'm not a big party guy. I never have been. One night I went out clubbing with the team from Village Energy and it was a fun time. It felt surreal to be dancing in a Ugandan club, with everyone (including myself) yelling out the lyrics to 50 Cent's P.I.M.P.. There were a lot of moments like this. Experiencing American culture through the eye's of these young Africans. Hip hop culture is huge and I would have conversations with Frank about what our favorite rap bands are. He was always surprised when he would name someone that I have never heard of.

Everyone I met in Uganda were extraordinarily friendly. Living at Village Energy, you very quickly fell into the community there. There was a small market right next door run by Mama Ellen. She's an older lady who is an absolute delight. Anytime I would walk by, she would call out a greeting to me and send me on my way with a blessing. Next door to Mama Ellen was Julie's Restaurant. Julie seemed to be an institution in the community. She would be outside cooking all day and I would see her carrying plates of food to various people throughout the neighborhood.

We got around town hiring motorcycle taxis, or boda-bodas. Riding on a boda was one of the most exhilarating and terrifying parts of being in Uganda. You would be winding your way through backed up traffic, making turns with huge semis coming up to your side. I kept having to pay attention to my knees to make sure that they would get snagged by a side view mirror. You would see anything and everything being hauled by boda-boda. Full furniture sets, goats, a family of 4, numerous large bags of grain, everything.

Step 5: Excursion Into the Countryside

Paola and her son’s (both students in the U.S. who were visiting their mother for the first time in Uganda) were going to Bwindi to see the mountain gorillas. Along the way, they were spending a night at Lake Bunyonyi. They offered to take us to the lake and pick us up again in a couple of days. Paola was adamant that we should go and see the countryside of Uganda and I was looking forward to it. Growing up in a rural area myself, I felt the need to get out into nature to get reestablish after being in a city for too long. We left the morning of the New Year and traveled southwest towards Lake Bunyonyi. It felt good, driving out of Kampala, listening to Tom Waits in a car full of people that I hardly knew.

The first part of the journey to Mbarara wasn’t bad. The roads were about as good as most in the United States. After Mbarara, it got much worse. It became a single lane of pavement filled with potholes and huge trucks going both ways at high speeds. It started clouding up and the rain started falling. Paola’s son’s would yell out, “Mom look out!” at a truck coming at us with no intent to move over. Paola would swerve over to the side and start shouting curse words in English and Italian. The surrounding view was incredible but it was hard to take your eyes off of the road. We pulled over in a small village and had the car swarmed by men carrying sticks of meat, soda and water bottles, and roasted bananas. They were shoving it all into the window, yelling out prices. We each grabbed a stick with a chunk of grilled chicken on it and continued going down the road with greasy hands and throwing bones out the window.

We arrived at Lake Bunyonyi just before nightfall. We checked in, went to the bar, drank beer, played chess and pool, argued with the bartender who was overcharging us, stared out at lake, and went to bed.

Step 6: Lake Bunyoni

The next day we hired a boat to take us out to Sharp's Island. Along the way we passed by Punishment Island. This was an island the local tribes would leave unmarried, pregnant women. The women would either need to be rescued by a man who was willing to pay the family a dowry to marry her or she would perish. Pretty intense.

Sharp's Island is a very small and somewhat secluded island on Lake Bunyonyi. We stayed on it for two days, had our meals cooked by two very friendly people who managed the island, paddled around on an unstable dugout canoe. Within the first hour of arriving, a large family arrived to celebrating the new year. The next two hours turned into a whirlwind of activity. They gave us a mug of porridge. It's a local drink that what I gathered is made of sorghum and ash and distilled underground for a couple of days. It's a real gritty and bitter drink that definitely had some alcohol in it. A couple of the older men in the group seemed like they had been drinking it all day. I don't remember how, but somehow I became a photographer for the family. Everyone was coming by and asking to have their photo taken with us. A couple of the younger guys were very interested in having their photo taken with Emi.

As they were leaving, they wanted me to take a photo of them. They packed into a boat and sang their farewell song. For me, this was the highlight of the trip.

Step 7: Testing Frank

I felt that the few days that we had away from Village Energy would be a good opportunity to test Frank what I had been teaching Frank. Before I left, I broke one of his printers. It was pretty minimal. I unleveled the bed and loosened the set screw to the motor coupling on the Y-axis. This resulted in useable but poor quality prints. As I said goodbye to Frank, I told him that his printer was broken and I wanted it to be fixed by the time I returned. He was confident saying, “Yeah, yeah, no problem.” I came back only to find neither of the things I had changed he found. To be honest, I don’t even know if he worked on it while we were gone. I had him print out another whistle so he could watch to see how the machine was failing. He noticed that there was something wrong with the Y-axis and he started tightening bolts. He eventually was able to figure out that the set screw was the culprit. The bed leveling took him a little bit longer. Without giving him the answer, I tried to break down the steps to help him be able to troubleshoot. We looked at all of the areas on the printer that had components that could be adjusted or would fail. I would ask him, what could go wrong in each area. When we got to the bed, he realized what was going on. The next whistle that he printed was perfect.

Step 8: Disaster Strikes!

A few days before we were set to leave, everything was working great. All three of the printers were up and running and Frank was getting better at Solidworks. So, of course, everything had to start falling apart. I woke up with a sinus infection that was causing pretty severe pain in my ear and the entire right side of my face. It escalated into a fever and put me under for an entire day. I woke up the next day feeling a lot better, but there was an issue with the Printrbot Plus, our best printer and workhorse. The stepper motor for the extruder was freaking out. It would be working fine for a few seconds and then all of sudden it would just start shimmying back a forth. It turned out that one of the wires was starting to fail so half of the coils in the stepper motor were not working. We took the motor apart, and repaired the faulty wire.

When we connected everything back together, more issues started to arise. Now the Y axis, Z axis, and extruder were not moving at all. The X axis was working fine. It wasn't an issue with the stepper motors, if you connected the motors to the X axis driver, they would start moving. It was something wrong with the board. I had no idea what was going on and I still don't. Maybe it was electrostatic discharge into the board that fried something out when we removed the extruder's stepper motor. We ended up having to removed the Printrboard from the other Printrbot and put it into the Printrbot Plus. It was pretty frustrating to me and. I'll be getting them a new board and send it out to them. We left with 2 out of 3 printers working which is better than they were expecting. Still, it's frustrating.

Step 9: Finishing Up

So, two of the printers were working when we left. Frank had already been thinking about what he is going to do with the machines to start generating some income. We were able to meet up with one of the managers at Google's Uganda office through contacts of Emi's. We talked with him and he seemed interested in what we were doing. He came by on our last day there to check out the 3D printers.

To start, he seemed very underwhelmed by the capabilities, saying he didn't think it was a viable tool for a business. Understandable. They are far from perfect machines. It took him a little while, but we were able to convince him that the implications of these machines are vast and it is only the beginning. He left saying he could see it being a successful tool for a business and made sure he had Frank's phone number.

Step 10: Final Advice

At the end of the trip, Frank asked me what he should do next. That's a hard question to answer for anyone, especially yourself. I'm always questioning myself (and second guessing) with this question. Essentially, this is what I told him:

"I don't know. That's going to be up to you to decide. Tomorrow, Emi and I are going to be leaving and communication is going to be a lot harder to do. We will always be available to help you out and please feel free to send out an email or we can try and arrange a Skype conversation. But it's still going to be hard to do because of the time difference. But I think you are in a good place to go forward. You know those machines really well and the best thing for you to do is to keep practicing the solid modeling.

You are in an interesting position. In that room you have access to technology probably no one else in Uganda has. You are in a powerful position where you get to decide what this technology can be used for. But it's also a hard to position because it is up to you to determine what this technology should be used for. It's the dilemma of being an entrepreneur and that is what you are. You are learning skills that are bringing you through a different path than what most people here are doing. You are going to have to get used to explaining to people what it is that you are doing and why it useful. To be honest with you, it might not work out this time. That's a part of being an entrepreneur, knowing that failure is always a possibility. But that's fine. You learn through the failure. You take the lessons that you learned and try again."

We started brainstorming ideas for what he could do. I said that he should always keep a notebook with him to write down or sketch out ideas. Be observant of other people, what they are doing, modifications they've made to things to come up with ideas for products.

When we left, Frank seemed excited for the future. He was motivated to move forward and see what he could do. I'm looking forward to finding out how it is going. I'm hoping to come back to Kampala and find Frank having created a 3D printing empire.



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    33 Discussions


    2 years ago

    Great story, thanks for sharing and kudos to you for being so generous and caring. I am so impressed with the "Print The Way Out of Poverty" projects that are popping up all over the world. Has your friend heard of Kiva? It is a an organization that funds small projects via public donations which are paid back by mutual arrangement, giving power back to the people. He may be able to fund a Filabot for the village.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    This is great stuff. 3D printing is going to revolutionalize the world.


    5 years ago

    how to get in touch with you. I need help on setting buyinh and working in a 3d printer in my garage.

    2 replies

    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Hey thanks for replying. Mainly interestedin knowin th basics of it and printout some household usables itemas made of plastic, steel, rubber etc.
    Currently i don't even know the abc of it and am looking for someone to help me out set this thing up in my garage and know all components of making it run, the cartridges,
    let me know if we can talk. i am an individual not a company, so i will be trying to understand the basics and working on these printers. I am a mechanical engineer and understand CNC machines, 3D, CAD etc but not programing that much.

    your think so nice.i am also try to give motion to mannual screen printing I need help

    from you.


    5 years ago on Step 10

    Sounds like you guys had quite an adventure! :)


    5 years ago



    5 years ago on Introduction

    keep it up..and change the world!..i also wanted to have this kind of rigs..I really need your help for this on how to set this up..:)

    1 reply

    I've wanted to do a home-based project like this for a long time, but I worry about design security. I read some stuff about secure online storage and vpns on but I wonder how you dealt with keeping your designs from being stolen online?

    1 reply

    It's not an issue when you release all your designs to the Creative Commons with the hope that people will use and modify your design. I understand and respect your reason for protecting an idea but if you spend all of your time protecting an idea, it limits the amount of time you have to come up with more ideas.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    I am an American in the land of opportunity and I can't get Solidworks because of price and I have not been able to get a 3D printer. You live in a 3rd world country and are making a business out of it. Bravo! I pray that God is with you on your venture and you teach and grow!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Long way to go , to give folks a hand . It shines , it truly does .