It’s more than a year since the first digital fabrication laboratory,  FabLab was launched in Thimphu in July 2017. 

Even though the concept of digital fabrication is in its infancy,  FabLab Bhutan has already created few positive results including the facilitation of Bhutan’s debut at the FIRST GROBAL Robotics Olympiad in August 2018, the replication of 3D printers, CNC milling machine, and laser cutter.  For the last two years, we have come to see many signboards and restaurant menus in town, which were carved and laser-printed with the help of the machines installed in the FabLab Bhutan.

The digital fabrication technology has thus broadened the horizon of Bhutan, enabling rapid prototyping and customized and decentralized production. The skills of the FabLab staff have been enhanced and they have become more confident in making almost everything. But still there are unexplored areas of prototyping  – disaster preparedness and responsiveness are one of those areas.

In this regard, the experience of Nepal in the 2015 earthquake disaster could give us a few implications. In April 2015, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake shook central and eastern Nepal and it was followed by another 7.3 magnitude earthquake on May 11. Total death toll reached over 8,000, and the number of the injured reached over 18,000. More than 10 percent of housed and buildings were destroyed or damaged.

Following these catastrophic events, the international community responded quickly and started supplying disaster relief goods. However, compared to the devastation of the earthquakes and the number of the affected, the capacity of the international airport was far less than enough to receive relief goods in an appropriate volume and timing.

Wherever catastrophic disasters occur, the supply chain may turn out to be a serious bottleneck for logistics of relief goods supply and mobility of international search and rescue teams and relief medical teams. In case of small landlocked countries, this supply chain constraint may be even more critical.

In May 2018, I travelled to Kathmandu. Although the trip itself was personal, I visited the Nepal Innovation Lab in Lalitpur without prior appointment. The staff there kindly accepted my visit. The Lab is a fully equipped innovation center and provides a collaborative working environment to test, prototype and scale breakthrough solutions for humanitarian and development challenges. It was established in 2015 as part of World Vision International’s earthquake response. Then I met with Mr Ben Britton, Innovation Advisor, dispatched by the UK-based international NGO, Field Ready.

Field Ready has experience in transforming the ways humanitarian supplies are manufactured. They have made useful items where they were needed to solve problems locally. And they have passed on these skills to others through training and capacity building within aid agencies, local maker spaces and local entrepreneurs. In Nepal, they are using tools such as 3D printers.

When I visited them in May, Ben showed me the low-cost prototype lifting airbag, which was first developed locally in Syria in March 2017 to lift heavy debris of collapsed buildings and rescue persons caught in the narrow space. He said that it would be developed to all the states in Nepal to enhance their local responsiveness to future disasters. When I visited them again in September, they had already advanced to the mass-production phase. According to their earlier experience in Syria, Field Ready successfully created a means to make it locally in a way that meets international standards, yet at a 90 percent reduction in cost.

Ben also showed me 3D-printed joints that connect two water tubes with different diameters; 3D-printed forceps to be used in surgical operations: solar-powered fluid warmer to supply heated water to the patients; and prototype needle destroyer that helps dispose off the needles safely after injection. These are made with locally available materials at a lower cost. They have made these prototypes in consultation with the Patan Hospital, which is located near their lab.

During catastrophic disasters, power supply may be disrupted and it may take some time for recovery. Digital fabrication may also be disabled. But Ben and his team have already been equipped with the alternative measures to source power supply from solar panels and car batteries.

Meanwhile, I have also heard about another international non-profit, Communitere, in Nepal. Starting with the earthquake disaster in Haiti in 2010 and the super-typhoon, Yolanda, in the Philippines in 2013, Communitere has extended its support to empower local communities to play an active role in the reconstruction.  I heard that they also apply digital fabrication technologies to convert debris into construction materials for reconstruction and development. Three years after the earthquake, their facility in Nepal has been localized as Nepal Communitere and utilized as makerspace, co-working space and start-up incubator.

These rapid-prototyping facilities, combined with technical knowledge, 1 percent of inspiration and 99 percent of perspiration, will increase resilience to future disasters by enabling more people to respond to fill gaps in the supply chain in the early stages of a response, even while the international community has hard time building up the logistics chain for humanitarian and emergency assistance. Also, if we could start these exercises in normal times, it could be a great entrepreneurial opportunity.

FabLabs must have potential to catalyze humanitarian innovation in Bhutan.

Eric James, co-editor of the 2018 book, ‘Managing Humanitarian Innovation,’ points out that the aid community has been slow to adopt innovation across the diverse set of actors and areas with whom it works. He refers to one recent study and says, “While 80 percent of non-profit leaders felt that innovation is an urgent imperative, only 40 percent believed their organizations were ready to do so.”

It’s time for us to change and cope with the challenges and opportunities lying in front of us. Earthquakes don’t wait. They may hit us tomorrow.

Contributed by Koji Yamada

Chief Representative, JICA Bhutan Office