I think the simplest and most basic products can be the most wonderful and beautiful because in fact, it is easy to make things complicated but it required a lot of effort and perseverance to make simple things that just work. When people are displaced and have to deal with extreme situations those basic products become really important. Therefore, looking at the core relief items provided by the UNHCR, I wonder about the design process and the choices that were made by the product designers of these items. Lucky for me I was able to speak to the product manager at Alpinter, one of the suppliers, during our Core Relief workshop in Lesvos.

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A summarizing video of our workshop on Lesvos.

Obviously, one of the crucial things, and one that both the UNHCR and Alpinter have seemed to solve, is to be able to supply these products in time and to the key stops on the routes that the displaced take, hoping to get asylum in Europe. Considering the large number of people, to be able to respond within the critical 72 hours of an emergency with hundreds if not thousands of items is nothing short of impressive. This was in fact, recently needed as one of the camps on Lesvos was ravaged by a fire. I might have been invited as a workshop coach an additive manufacturing (3d printing) expert to the Core Relief workshop but I’m also an industrial designer who appreciates the effectiveness of mass manufacturing.

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Brainstorm: What would you take with you if you suddenly had to flee your home, and how long would it last?

Having visited the hospitality camp of Kara Tepe in Lesvos, we realized that the needs of people, once they are beyond the emergency situation, are not just basic anymore. Lots of different situations and behaviors occur just like in normal communal life, except that, because the visitors are basically living in the state of the UN, the rules and regulations are stricter. The one-year warrantee of the shelter unit implies that people will be there only for a short while. But actually, since Europe is not letting people in that easily, people are using it far beyond its warrantee. Needing also shade in the summer, the visitors damage the housing units in their attempts to attach nets and tarpaulins, at the same time creating a fire hazard. For this, the participants came up with the idea for a hook that can be attached at the same points where the screws attached the walls of the unit.

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Early model of the idea for a hook for attaching nets and tarpaulins to the Better Shelter housing unit. Find the files on our thingiverse.

One of the goals we set out for ourselves was to extend the functionalities of the basic items in order to meet these not-so-basic needs. And what better way to customize and hack things than with a 3d-printer? With it, we could quickly create adapters for both the (flexible) jerrycan and the shelter unit that allowed these products to better meet the needs of the users- of ‘the inbetweeners’- and the problems that the implementing partners, like Samaritan’s Purse, of these products face. I really encouraged our participants to get into the minds of their users, imagine scenarios, and even though we could not do research with the actual users themselves, we did have an expert who had gone through the journey himself.

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Our expert Aws Idris of UNRWA being tested upon with the flexible jerrycan which, with a 3d printed adapter, can now be used as a breather device. Find the files on our thingiverse.

Being the appointed expert on additive manufacturing, I know almost all the different techniques and possibilities but the cost and access to these techniques, also in preparation to the workshop still prove difficult beyond the oh-so affordable desktop FDM machines. Even though 3d printing is taking off in urban metropoles and Athens is no exception, the availability of printers or to share in production capacity, like the 3dhubs website allows for, is still not up to par with other sharing economy initiatives. I am happy that 2 FDM printers are now with Aris of LATRA Design on Lesvos with the goal of humanitarian aid. And, as I said, aid is not only basic needs. I gave a workshop 3d printing to 6 Syrian teenagers who were bored out of their minds because their status did not allow them to do any work on the island.

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Picking out things to print from Thingiverse with the Syrian teenagers.

The printers right now, in the innovation lab at Kara Tepe, are still playing the role of a prototyping machine at the beginning and reiteration of the product development and innovation process. They basically allow our group of dedicated professionals to learn about humanitarian aid and what it takes to make simple things that just work. I am confident though, that in even more low-resource settings these printers can also become manufacturing machines. Or, as printing technology advances, they actually become mass manufacturing/customization tools like the Carbon3D attempts to. In any case, the fact that we share our findings and designs online will allow other people and professionals to appropriate them to their needs. I am confident that it can inspire their designers and implementers to continue to innovate in products for the displaced and the inbetweeners.

See also my presentation on Slideshare: an introduction to the state of the art in 3d printing for the participants of the workshop. (slightly edited for the general public)

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