Makers and Disaster Relief: Replacement Parts

Energy & Sustainability Metalworking Science Workshop
Makers and Disaster Relief: Replacement Parts

Building anything, especially something critical that’s needed quickly, is a messy endeavor. And I mean a disorienting-humiliating-might-get-a-little-poop-on-you-kind-of-messy. Makers will attest to this. That’s why we shower at night, not in the morning (#showeratnight). Talking about what to do or make is a lot different than actually DOING IT. Doing it gets hands bloodied by 3D print removal tools, fingers crazy-glued together, arms weirdly sunburned by welding, and laptops thrown across rooms when the code won’t compile FOR THE 3,000TH TIME!

But doing it gets it done.

I have started receiving ideas and concepts for the humanitarian tech challenges inspired by what I recently saw during my short trip to the Caribbean. Some of the responders mentioned existing tech that might be off-the-shelf, or provided detailed approaches to solving the problems, or wondered why these are still pervasive problems if solutions are already out there.

In short, it doesn’t matter if the problem has been previously solved or the tech already exists. The people suffering in the Caribbean don’t have the solution. And that’s it.

We can talk about how some of the existing solutions aren’t optimized for these conditions or that they are too expensive for donors to purchase and send in bulk. I can sermonize about how I believe we should NOT be bringing in solutions but rather teaching people how to build the tech themselves, thereby creating a sense of empowerment and ownership in the recovery process — maybe even creating a few small businesses along the way. We can design-think/whiteboard/simulate the greatest inventions of all time to solve all the humanitarian problems (cue crescendoing music).

But doing it gets it done.

And the survivors in the Caribbean need people who want to do it. They need makers.

So please feel free to tell me the ways these problems can be solved, as the dialogue can be revelatory. But what actually helps is a solution I can throw on a plane and take to the disaster area. I don’t care if you bought it or made it as long as the people who need it can use it to recover.

Now, that that’s been dealt with, I want to address a new challenge: Replacement Parts. The story begins soon after we debarked the plane in St. Thomas. Within hours of traveling around the island we were being asked to repair and make generator parts. Immediately after the hurricanes hit, people quickly tried to restore power to hospitals and other critical infrastructure that rely on generators. However, these generators are often under-serviced and over-tasked. Parts frequently wear out and break, parts that are generally made from metal.

The ultra-geek in me wants to figure out how to make metal 3D printing expeditionary and affordable. The realist in me knows that humanity has been casting parts for a very long time — so why not just do that? I hear a lot of buzz about 3D printing metal and — one day — I bet it will be fantastic for field applications. But until that day comes where we can successfully produce bolts, nuts, manifolds, engines, levers, etc. with casting, and can understand, fairly well, its idiosyncrasies, that idea will have to wait. I’d love to see someone take the utility of 3D printing and marry it with casting to create rapid metal prototyping capability.

I know I am late to this 3D printing-meets-casting party, but is there a solution that makes this process more elegant and seamless? Oh, and can it use fallen trees and galvanized roofing as raw materials? And can it be modular so I can travel with it? It would be even better if it could be a single piece of tech that can 3D print and then cast in one system? Maybe even allow me to travel back in time?

Below is the short overview excerpted from the list of challenges. MAKERS ASSEMBLE!

Problem: Disaster recovery solutions sometimes require replacement or bespoke metal parts. The people of the Caribbean need a small, portable casting system that can safely melt found metals like galvanized and tin metal sheets used in roofing (all over the Caribbean), downed cabling and scrap metals from poles, nails/screws pulled from destroyed homes, and any other sources of metal, that uses wood found from fallen trees and, if needed, power from upcycled solar panels.

Solution: This solution might consist of two parts, the ‘sandbox’ where the molten metal is poured (cast is made) and the kiln that can safely melt a host of metals, and uses recovered wood from fallen trees as fuel. Galvanized sheet steel is the most common metal readily available, but there are many sources or metal scattered about the community, like aluminum cans. (Note: Melting galvanized metal produces zinc gasses, which can be toxic — this should be taken into account.) The kiln must be able to melt metals other than aluminum and the casting ‘sandbox’ must be able to accommodate hotter metals. It is preferred if the kiln can be reproduced in situ.

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