Thursday, March 6, 2014

A trend that will change our kids' future: 3D printing


I have seen the future, and it is in 3D. Specifically, three-dimensional printing. It will change life for children and adults who have disabilities. Actually, it already is.

I first started reading about 3D printing last year, although the machines have been sold commercially since 2010. "Printing" isn't the right word—they basically build entire objects. I know it sounds like something out of the future, but it is happening, and it is a technological marvel.

The 3D printers are being used to make, among other things, car parts, dental parts, toys, jewelry, food and prosthetic limbs. Researchers are working on using them to produce muscle tissue, skin, kidneys, cartilage and bones. Really, the possibilities are infinite. Here is an excellent Smithsonian Magazine article on the topic, and a you've-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it video of a wrench made on a 3D printer:


You need a special computer program to create the virtual blueprints, whether it's computer aided design (CAD) or animation modeling software. The program divides the object into digital cross-sections, and you zap the design to a 3D printer which builds layer upon layer to form an object. Mostly, plastic is being used, but so is rubber, paper and metal. People can download designs—or request them—at sites including Shapeways and Sculpteo.


Amazon sells desktop 3D printers. The UP! Mini 3D Desktop Printer ($922.46) builds objects to a max of 4.75 x 4.75  4.75. Users report making mazes, compression springs and decorative objects like a snowflake...and spider. Costs are coming down; Amazon has one not yet available for $500, XYZPrinting Da Vinci (above).

The boy in the photo above, Matthew, was born limb different. Although he hadn't shown an interest in a prosthetic hand, the cost is prohibitive, $18,000 and up. His mother, Jennifer, showed a picture of a Robohand created on a 3-printer to a 16-year-old family friend. He downloaded a computer file for it from Thingiverse. He printed it out on the 3-D printer at their local library in Johnson County, Kansas. And voila, Matthew had a prosthetic hand.

That's what's so genius about 3D printing and its possibilities for those with disabilities: People will be able to print out customized designs to best fit their bodies and needs. One man recently made himself a mini wheelchair ramp he totes around, so he can glide over steps. In 2012, as reported by Fast Company, Enabled By Design—a British nonprofit that helps people live independently—held a designathon that featured 3D products. One guy invented a water-heating device that could be manipulated using the upper arms only, no hand motion required.

Printers could someday make customized walkers, gait trainers and foot braces at reasonable costs; another major benefit of 3D printing is that it will make products more accessible to people in all income ranges. A 3D printer could produce hearing and visual aids (recently, a design student in India created 3D puzzles to help children learn braille); adaptive toys and equipment, specialized seating for homes and cars; even swings (adaptive ones are often such a rip-off). Speaking of which, they'll also spew out those darn overpriced adaptive utensils. Excuse me, price-gouging company that charges $30 bucks for a spoon, I'll just print my own! (And DIY-ing is key—one site is already selling 3D printed adaptive teacups for $99. Sigh.)

Devices for children made via 3D printing could grow with them, another cost-saver. Seersucker magazine tells of a girl born with a genetic condition that causes her joints and muscles to stiffen, leaving her arms inflexible and underdeveloped. Developers created a lightweight, plastic robotic exoskeleton through a 3D printer, and they will make new parts as she grows. Here, watch:


This is a major trend. One sign: South by Southwest's Interactive Conference, which kicks off this Friday, is running a session on 3D Printing for People with Disabilities. If the techno-peeps of this world are psyched about it, all the better for our kids.

I'm definitely mentioning this to Max's school, and our local library. I could see purchasing one in a year or so, when the technology has gotten even better, and making utensils for Max. I can see crowdsourcing designs for him—he could use a better tool for holding a pen and pencil, for one. But I'd have to hide the machine from Max, or he would make it my life's work to crank out all things Lightning McQueen.

17 comments:

  1. Very cool! I would make a fork and knife together (i have a hard time using my right hand which makes it really difficult for me to use a fork and knife together at the same time)

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  2. That was the first thing I thought of when I started reading, LOL .... your house being overtaken by Lightning McQueen replicas that Max secretly prints at night... every day, more of them...like in a horror movie... then they become alive....

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  3. I came across your site awhile ago and have loved reading your stories. I have worked with kids with many types of disabilities in therapeutic riding for many years and have often tried to make small tools which will make things easier for the students such as loops used to hold the reins. I am a CAD designer and use these machines for a living.

    If this is something that you would like to try before purchasing a RP machine of your own, you could also talk to your local technical school or collage. Most schools today have at least one rapid prototype machine and are happy to do outside work, especially if it would benefit someone directly.

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    1. Thanks Josh! I sent this post to Max's school, they are very tech savvy. I am also going to look around for resources in our area and in cyberspace, too, per Claire's note below on hackerspaces.

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  4. I sooooooooo wish I had access to one of these. I could make so many things that would make life easier for Ash, and on top of that I could make things that would make life easier for ME. I've had a bone structural deformity since I was nine years old, I'm soon to be 35, and I *still* am trying to get a custom knee brace.

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  5. Cool! Then you can print spoons with large handles!

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  6. You're in NY, aren't you?

    Have you met the very awesome folks at MakerBot?

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    1. No, I haven't! Have you used their printers?

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  7. Hackerpaces are workshops full of awesome equipment for geekyery,such as 3d printing for use by anyone. Here is a list, I bed there's one near you. http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_Hacker_Spaces
    We are at the point where any number of member groups could work with you and Max using open source software and 3d printers to design s6m
    oething which works for Max.

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    1. Wow, a whole new world for me. I am going to jump in! THANK YOU, this is invaluable info.

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  8. Our HS has one of these. I'm pretty sure that the teacher would love for her kids to have the opportunity to design things that are really needed by people in the community.

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    1. Go for it! How about some spoons? He he.

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  9. Pinned this http://www.pinterest.com/pin/147141112799916802/ and the article. Both go to facebook and twitter. Thank you so much for making the world better for the differently abled.

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  10. This is amazing, world changing technology! I had no idea!

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  11. I absolutely love that 3D printing is helping to create better ways of life. However, I'm a 3D printing artist/designer, and I think they seriously need some artists in the medical 3D field! Could you just imagine? I could have added little wings and flowers etc. to the magic arms design instead of just blocky parts!!! I would have loved to make wings for this girl. She wouldn't be "disabled" then! Other kids would be jealous that she gets to have wings and they don't!
    sorhain@gmail.com

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  12. U of M Uses 3D Printing to Breathe New Life Into Child--Read more: http://fox17online.com/2014/03/18/3d-printing-device-at-u-of-m-breathes-new-life-into-child/#ixzz2wOAe39aT
    Truly amazing

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  13. I just read this a bit ago. Really kind of awesome, from duct tape to 3D printing AND apparently he uses a free 3D printer at the library!

    http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2014/mar/16/the-father-of-invention/

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Thanks for sharing!



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