Does 3D printing have the potential usher in a golden age of inexpensive living aids and assistive devices? Paul F Cockburn takes a closer look…
According to one expert, “Two years ago it was on the boundaries of up-and-coming technologies; now it seems to be everywhere.” That’s Paul Doyle, Head of Access, Research and Development at Hereward College in Coventry, talking about ‘additive layer manufacturing’ – better known as ‘3D printing’.
An invaluable tool
It has become an invaluable tool for Doyle in his work of creating bespoke assistive technology solutions for the College’s disabled students. It has also enabled some of those students to actively devise and create new living aids of their own.
In 2014, Hereward student Ollie Baskaran, who has muscular dystrophy, developed a simple straw-holder – shaped like a bung, with a hole in the middle – that enabled him to enjoy beers and soft drinks from a variety of different-sized bottles. “Without 3D printing I would never have been able to get the idea professionally designed and manufactured, as it would have cost too much,” he says. “This technology opens up so many possibilities to make life easier for disabled people.”
Earlier this year, the orthotics and prosthetics specialist Aortha demonstrated its pioneering 3D insole technology [PDF], which will soon enable orthotists and podiatrists to print a pair of custom-made, bespoke insoles in around an hour – six times faster than anything else currently on the market. According to the company’s CEO, Hugh Sheridan, “The technology transforms the speed with which custom-made, multi-density insoles can be produced. This advance fits with our mission to develop and bring to market life-changing products that not only change the way people move, but also the way they feel.”
What is 3D Printing?
“It’s important to understand that a variety of different technologies fall under the blanket term of ‘3D Printing’,” explains Rees Calder, spokesperson for the world’s largest 3D print shop, iMakr. The company opened a London store two years ago and produces a range of desktop-orientated machines that cost between £500 and £5000.
“It’s where we think the future of the technology is really heading,” he says, “getting printers into people’s homes and getting people producing stuff for themselves. Fused deposition modelling [FDM] is probably the most common system – it’s essentially like a really fancy glue gun. You feed plastic polymer in the back, which gets melted by the extruder and is then laid down very precisely one layer at a time, gradually building up your object.
“It’s probably the most affordable; the material costs are relatively low, and it allows you to create a wide variety of designs. The drawbacks, though, include the fact that it’s only really plastic that you can print, and only in a single colour; any other colours you want to add have to be done after the fact.
“Also within desktop printing there’s Direct Light Projection (DLP). It’s a little more complicated and a little more expensive, but essentially it projects an ultraviolet light that cures a resin one layer at a time. With that you get much finer detail and much higher resolution, but your build volume is lower, and you’re limited in terms of size.”
Communicating with CAD
In order to successfully print any object, however, you have to tell the printer exactly what you want it to do. For that, you need a fully-realised 3D computer model.
The first phase of the Hereward College course sees to it that students get to acquire some basic Computer Aided Design (CAD) skills. As Diane Burton, Project Officer for STEM Outreach at the University of Warwick explains, “We started with simple things like creating Christmas decorations, just to get them used to the CAD tools. We then moved on to applying those skills to come up with some living aid product ideas, designing and printing them, and then amending them. 3D printing is ideal for prototyping.”
But what if you don’t feel up to learning CAD? “A lot of people ask me if they can just show their printer a photo of their desired object – and we’re very far away from that point!” says Rees Calder. “As it stands, you either need to know how to design in 3D, or you go to online file depositories like the one we run, MyMiniFactory.com, where thousands of files are available for free.”
He adds, “You can now actually start printing without being a designer, just like you can listen to music without having to be able to make it. That’s where we’re heading – some people will want to design their stuff from scratch, some will just want to use other people’s models, others will want to modify them. But it’s becoming more accessible to non-designers and non-makers, which is quite exciting.”
‘Wipe clean and beige’
Given that so much assistive technology is still manufactured under a ‘one size fits all’ policy, 3D printing certainly offers real opportunities for creating – or at least prototyping – bespoke aids and adaptions with relative speed and economy. That’s certainly the view of Enabled By Design, a social business which helps disabled people find or make the best solutions for their individual needs.
Co-founder Denise Stephens, who has multiple sclerosis, has a passion for interior design and believes that 3D printing’s ‘print-on-demand’ nature can bring a sense of style and fashion back into disabled people’s lives and herald a move away from what Paul Doyle jokingly terms the ‘Wipe clean and beige’ design ethos common to so much assistive technology.
As Doyle puts it, “Something could be the most functionally appropriate device on the planet, but if it doesn’t fit in with someone’s personal image – if, as one of my students says, it ‘looks crap’ – then they won’t use it. The thing with 3D printing is that you can personalise stuff, so you can change how things appear.”
A disruptive technology?
Though the principals underpinning 3D printing date back to the 1980s, the modern incarnation of the technology is still in its infancy. In Rees Calder’s view, “General usability is going up to the point where these things are a tool that anyone can be shown how to use pretty quickly now, which is quite exciting. It’s arguably the trajectory [along which] the technology is going to go.”
“3D printing is still used for prototyping, and has been for a long time,” says Diane Burton, “but I think where the market will move is towards applications that give people bespoke products. With something like assisted technology, you can just have a go yourself. If you’ve made something and you want to use it, that’s up to you – but as soon as you start selling it, regulations change.”
Paul Doyle believes that 3D printing could well prove rather disruptive to the current assistive technology industry. “At the moment, obviously, we have very strong restrictions about what we can do, making sure that everything is safe and functional and doesn’t exacerbate injuries or harm anybody in the longterm,” he concedes. “But when you have people bringing design-manufacturing capacity within their homes, and they’ve a mind to make assistive technology solutions for themselves, I think that’s going to be quite disruptive.
“We don’t know where innovations are going to come from. I can imagine some great applications coming out in the next few years, but they won’t necessarily appear from traditional, NHS-driven research and development and university-based facilities; it’ll be in somebody’s garage somewhere. It’s an exciting time!”
024 7646 1231 www.hereward.ac.uk
0207 48 18 18 4 www.imakr.com