The 3D-printing revolution

As technology advances, it is also becoming cheaper. Could 3D printing soon be affordable for everyone? What does this mean for disability-related products? Bob Vogel from New Mobility finds out

Imagine coming up with a cool idea, being able to design that idea on a computer, hitting “print” and seeing your idea come to life, ready to use. For three long-time friends, two of whom are quadriplegics, that idea was custom disability-related aids for daily living. For a father-and-son team of engineers, it was novel switch technology that allows people with limited dexterity to use touchscreens.

In both cases, thanks to 3D printing, the teams were able to bring their visions to life without breaking the bank. They can now pass the savings on to consumers. Welcome to the 3D-printing revolution in which hobbyists, inventors and entrepreneurs are creating innovative and affordable disability-related products.

Wheelchair users often have great ideas on how to create better and less expensive solutions to everyday disability-related problems. Until recently, bringing these ideas to fruition involved costly steps of creating, modelling and machining prototypes, or having them custom-made by occupational therapists. As a result, many ideas remained at the concept stage, or financially out of reach.

The growing affordability of and access to 3D printers are rapidly changing this. The price of 3D printers has plummeted from about US$100 000 (about R1,4 million) in the early 2000s to the comparably more affordable US$1 500 to US$5 000 (about R22 100 to R73 800) for a machine that produces similar quality prints.

Entry-level machines can be purchased for less than US$200 (about R2 900). This has created a movement of people producing innovative and affordable designs for personal use, as a hobby, for their club or to start a small business.

Makers Making Change

One driving force in the 3D revolution is the web’s myriad offerings of open-source finished designs and user-friendly programs that make it easy to find, create, modify and print almost any shape imaginable. Until recently, aspiring designers had to purchase and learn how to use extremely complex and prohibitively expensive computer-aided design (CAD) programs.

Now there are a number of quality free options for people wanting to get started with CAD. Both SketchUp and Tinkercad are solid, simple programs built with the amateur hobbyist in mind. Fusion 360 is an extremely powerful program that’s relatively easy to use and free for non-commercial use or start-up companies with annual revenue of less than US$100 000 (about R1,4 million).

If you have an idea for a product but lack design skills, there are websites that focus on matching designers to people with a specific need or idea. Better still, when somebody makes or improves a design, they often share it online.

A prime example is Makers Making Change, which is an online site that connects “makers”, including hobbyist, people in arts and crafts, engineers, scientist or do-it-yourself individuals with people with disabilities who need activities of daily living (ADL) or assistive technologies. People with an idea for a specific ADL can also connect to a maker to turn it into reality.

The project was started in 2012 by the Neil Squire Society, a Canadian non-profit organisation. According to its website, it is “committed to creating an international community of makers who support people with disabilities within their communities by creating accessibility solutions”.

The Makers Making Change website has an online library of 3D printable ADLs. It also offers connections to local makers with 3D printers who can either print an existing product or customise a product to fit a person’s needs, all for the price of printing material. For example, a 3D-printed adaptive utensil or pen holder will cost about US$3 (about R44), compared to US$15 (about R221) to US$20 (about R295) in many online stores.

When somebody has a cool idea, the site has links to connect them with local makers who volunteer their time to bring that idea to fruition.

“3D printers have created a movement of hobbyists who are getting into making things,” says Harry Lew, manager at the Neil Squire Society. “It is sort of parallel to the ’50s when you had the emergence of power hand tools that became available and people were making their own furniture. The 3D movement covers all ages, including retired engineers who have ideas, like to model and create, and now can do a 3D print for next to nothing.”

Lew says occupational therapists refer people with disabilities who have limited funds to Makers Making Change so they can obtain inexpensive custom ADLs directly from the maker. These connections provide cool solutions to maximise independence, he says, adding that the connections also help makers and people with disabilities have a broader understanding of each other.

A boon for business

Just as 3D printing is used by groups like Makers Making Change to empower individuals, the technology also helps many small businesses get off the ground.

“For a small start-up, time and money are in short supply and 3D printing saves a lot of each because we can prototype and refine our ideas right at the shop, rather than having to spend thousands of dollars and a lot of time to have each prototype made at a machine shop,” says Stefan Henry, co-founder and CEO of Level the Curve.

This company was co-founded in April 2017 by three close friends: Henry, Eli Ramos and Khan Sakeeb. Henry and Ramos are quadriplegics. “A few years back, Eli, Khan and I said: ‘Let’s start a company that makes stuff to help people with disabilities get through life more easily’,” Henry says.

They design their products using two complex and expensive CAD programs, SolidWorks and Rhino, and print them on a FormBot 3D printer, which retails for about US$900 (about R13 200). Their first product is the Eating Tool, a device that looks a little bit like two-holed brass knuckles, made to hold a utensil.

It’s intended to make it easier for a person with limited finger function to get food from their plate to their mouth, and retails online for US$20 (about R295). “Orders are coming in,” Henry says. “It’s slow but building momentum, and we have more products in the beta test stage.”

PTW Design & Development, too, has benefitted from the ease and affordability of 3D printing. This assistive technology and ergonomic design company was launched three years ago by the father-and-son team of Philip and Richard Weiss. Philip is an electrical engineering/computer science graduate who has limited hand dexterity because of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and his dad, Richard, is a scientist.

They used 3D printing to make prototypes of their first two products, the AireLink and the AireTouch, which enable switch activation and interfacing with a smartphone or computer touchscreen for people with limited dexterity and sell for about US$50 (about R738).

“We got as close as possible to the final design before committing to the cost of having moulds cut,” Philip says. “This was much faster and less expensive than sending drawings to a machine shop or making expensive injection moulds.”

The company also has prototypes for a hand brace for keyboard operation.

“It is good we were able to save money with 3D prototyping because we thought when we had a prototype, we were 50 percent of the way to market. It is more like one percent of the way,” says Philip. Still, Philip and Richard are enthusiastic and currently beta-testing the AireLink and AireTouch.

Create from home

3D printing has also empowered inventors with disabilities looking to create ADLs for personal use or for friends.

“Making things for myself and others gives me a feeling of accomplishment and allows me to overcome obstacles, which makes my life easier and helps me feel less trapped by being a C5-6 quadriplegic,” says Tim Beidler, the treasurer of NW Inventors’ Network (NWIN), a club and resource network for inventors in the United States.

Beidler has been making items for more than 18 years – from parts that make his van easier to drive, to a tennis ball launcher for his service dog. He designs each item from scratch using complex CAD programs. “Before 3D printing, I had to send files out to local and sometimes national machine and sheet metal shops to have parts made. It was both costly and time-consuming,” he says.

Five years ago, NWIN purchased a high-quality Replicator 2X printer, of which the current version retails at US$2 499 (about R36 900). It resides at Beidler’s house. “Now I can print items right here in my office, which is faster and much less expensive,” he says. “Of the 11 different items I’ve designed and built for my daily use, seven were 3D printed.”

Beidler’s 3D prints include an articulated arm for his cellphone that fits on his power chair, a dog treat dispenser for his service dog, a custom box enclosure for holding USB sockets, and custom side guards to keep his feet from spasming off his footrests.

“The side guards would have cost well over US$100 [about R1 400] from a wheelchair company and all they cost me was the price of printing material, which is about US$6 [about R88],” he says. Beidler has the skills to take someone’s idea from conception to 3D printing. He has designed and printed items for a local accessible van shop and some of their customers.

“As a full-time tinkerer and aspiring inventor, I understand many of the trials and tribulations involved in bringing ideas to life, and I know all too well what it’s like to need help. I enjoy using design skills and 3D printing capabilities to help others develop their ideas,” Beidler says. He generally charges US$35 (about R517) per hour to design for others, but works on a sliding scale down to zero, depending on a person’s resources.

Kary Wright was turned on to 3D printers last summer when he saw a guy flying a drone similar to his, but with extra-long landing gear that kept the propellers from breaking when touching down in tall grass. Wright, a C5-6 quadriplegic who also writes for New Mobility, found out the pilot had 3D printed the unique landing gear.

The pilot gave Wright the set and told him he’d just print another that night. Most importantly, he told Wright he could order a printer online for US$200 (about R2 900). “That night I went online and ordered a Monoprice printer for US$212 [about R3 100],” Wright recalls.

He quickly discovered many online sites where people share free 3D designs and easy-to-use programs. “My favourite site is Thingiverse because it has categories like disability aids and people share what they design,” he says.

“Another free program I like is Tinkercad because it’s user-friendly for the person who doesn’t know CAD. It’s easy to use and lets a layperson like myself modify shapes by clicking and dragging. Or if I know the dimensions for my project, I can type them in.”

The list of cool ADLs and disability-related items Wright has made already is impressive: a holster-type cellphone holder that cable-ties to the armrest of his chair, joystick extensions that enable him to fly his drone with limited hand dexterity, a mount to hold his cellphone while he’s flying the drone, and a leg bag drain that he can operate independently.

“A big pain for me as a quadriplegic was having to ask somebody to drain my leg bag for me. I looked at commercially available automatic ones, but they are going for about US$400 [about R5 900]. I made one on the 3D printer for a few bucks using filament, a spring and some cable ties,” Wright says.

He adds that 3D printing is extremely economical. Most of his ADLs were made for just the cost of printing filament, which is only a few dollars. He says it usually takes him three or four prints to adjust and tweak a design so that it’s just right.

“I’m happy with the inexpensive 3D printer. The only downside is that it is slow. The average length of time it takes to print something like my cellphone holder is about six hours. It also can’t print shapes that require thin or complex areas,” Wright says. The more expensive printers are faster and can print more complex objects. They also have multiple print heads, are easier to clean and have bigger print.

This article first appeared in New Mobility on December 1, 2018. To read the original article and access more information on 3D printers, visit http://www.newmobility.com/2018/12/the-revolution-will-be-3d-printed/.

What is a 3D printer?

3D printers take information sent from a computer and create objects in 3D. Most affordable models use filament, which they feed into a print head that heats it into molten material, similar to a glue gun. The printer then relies on the computer to control the flow and thickness of the molten material to make the 3D pattern by laying down one layer at a time until the object is finished.

Filament comes in spools of one kilogram and a variety of materials and colours for about US$25 (about R369) a spool. The two most common materials are polylactic acid (PLA), which is a biodegradable plant-based thermoplastic, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), which is a more durable type of plastic. A single spool can print many projects.

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