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 longtime friends, two of whom are quads, the 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. And they can now pass the savings onto consumers.
Welcome to the 3D printing revolution — where hobbyists, inventors and entrepreneurs are creating innovative and affordable disability-related products and other cool stuff.
Wheelchair users often have great ideas on how to make better and less expensive solutions for everyday disability-related problems. But until recently, bringing these ideas to fruition involved costly steps that include creating, modeling 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 is rapidly changing this. The price of 3D printers has plummeted from around $100,000 in the early 2000s to the comparably more affordable $1,500-$5,000 for a machine that produces similar quality prints. Entry-level machines can be purchased for under $200. This has created a movement of people producing innovative and affordable designs for personal use, to support 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, as well as 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 extremely complex and prohibitively expensive computer-aided design 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 noncommercial use and startups with less than $100,000 a year in revenue.
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 of this is Makers Making Change, an online site that connects “makers” — a worldwide movement of hobbyists, people involved in arts and crafts, engineering, science and do-it-yourself projects — to people with disabilities who need ADLs or assistive technologies. It also connects people who have an idea for a specific ADL or project with a maker who can turn the idea into a reality.
The project was started in 2012 by the Neil Squire Society, a Canadian nonprofit whose site says 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 site 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 customize a product to fit a person’s needs, all for the price of printing material. For example, an adaptive utensil or pen holder will cost around $3 dollars, compared to $15-20 in many online stores. And 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 disabled people with limited funds to Makers Making Change so they can obtain inexpensive, custom ADLs directly from the maker. “These connections provide cool solutions to maximize independence,” says Lew, adding that the connections also help makers and disabled people 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. “As a small startup, 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, 29, co-founder and CEO of Level The Curve, a small, Manhattan-based company that makes ADLs.
The company was co-founded in April 2017 by three close friends — Henry, Eli Ramos, and Khan Sakeeb — two of whom, Henry and Eli, are quads. “A few years back, Eli and Kahn and I said, ‘Let’s start a company that makes stuff to help people with disabilities get through life more easily,’” says Henry.
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 around $900.
Their first product is the Eating Tool, a device that looks a little bit like two-holed brass knuckles that holds a utensil. It’s intended to make it easier for people with limited finger function to get food from the plate to their mouth and retails online for $20. “Orders are coming in,” says Henry. “It’s slow, but building momentum, and we have more products in the beta test stage.”
PTW Design & Development has also benefitted from the ease and affordability of 3D printing. The assistive technology and ergonomic design company was launched three years ago in Berkeley, California, by the father-and-son team of Philip and Richard Weiss. Philip, 32, is an electrical engineering/computer science graduate who has limited 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 AireTouch, which enable switch activation and interfacing with a smartphone or computer touchscreen for people with limited dexterity and sell for around $50. “We got as close as possible to the final design before committing to the cost of having molds cut,” explains Philip. “This was much faster and less expensive than sending drawings to a machine shop or making expensive injection molds.”
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 1 percent of the way,” says Philip.
Still, Philip and Richard are enthusiastic and currently beta-testing the AireLink and AireTouch. They are looking for beta testers in case any readers with limited dexterity are interested in testing a light touch switch or need to access their smartphone with a switch (see resources).
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 quad,” says Tim Beidler, 50, from Beaverton, Oregon. He is the treasurer of NW Inventors’ Network, a club and resource network for inventors.
Beidler has been making items for over 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,” he says. “It was both costly and time-consuming.”
Five years ago, the NWIN purchased a high-quality Replicator 2X printer, the current version of which retails for $2,499. 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 cell phone that fits on his power chair; a dog treat dispenser for Harvey, his yellow lab 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 $100 from a wheelchair company, and all they cost me was the price of printing material, which is around $6.
If a person has an idea for a design, Beidler has the skills to take it from conception to 3D printing. Among the clients Beidler has designed and printed items for is a local accessible van shop and some of their customers. Items he has designed for them include joysticks for mirror and window controls, and key fobs with bigger housings and easy-to-push buttons. “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,” he says. “I enjoy using design skills and 3D printing capabilities to help others develop their ideas.”
Beidler generally charges $35 per hour to design for others, but adds, “I work on a sliding scale down to zero, depending on a person’s resources.”
Kary Wright, 55, of Bashaw, Alberta, 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 setting down in tall grass. Wright, a C5-6 quad who writes Outdoor Tracks 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 200 bucks. “That night I went online and ordered a Monoprice printer for $280 Canadian,” says Wright. “I was hooked.”
Wright quickly discovered many online sites where people share free 3D designs and easy-to-use programs. “My favorite 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 a user-friendly program 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 cell phone holder that zip-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 cell phone while he’s flying the drone, USB plug adaptors and, most useful of all, a leg bag drain that he can independently operate. “A big pain for me as a quad was having to ask somebody to drain my leg bag for me,” he says. “I looked at commercially available automatic ones, but they are going for around 400 bucks. I made one on the 3D printer for a few bucks in filament, a spring and some zip ties.”
In addition to the fun and satisfaction of turning an idea into what he needs, Wright explains 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 it’s just right. “I’m happy with the inexpensive 3D printer. The only downsides are it is slow — the average length of time it takes to print something like my cell phone holder is about six hours — and it can’t print shapes that require thin or complex areas,” says Wright.
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 beds — the printing size limit of Wright’s is 4.5 inches by 4.5 inches.
Check out the resources below to learn more about the 3D printing revolution. In addition to creating cool and affordable solutions that maximize independence, as Wright says, “3D printing is an inexpensive way to design exactly what you need.”
What is a 3D Printer?
3D printers take information sent from a computer and create objects in, you guessed it, 3D. Most affordable models use filament — imagine weed whacker line — 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, and to make the 3D pattern, laying down one layer at a time until the object is finished. Filaments come in 2.2-pound spools and a variety of materials and colors for about $25 a spool. The two most common materials are PLA, which is a biodegradable, plant-based thermoplastic, and ABS, which is a more durable type of plastic. A single spool can print many projects.
Another hobbyist, Jacob Field, 18, from The Dalles, Oregon, designed The ‘Sup — a low-cost sip n’ puff joystick controller that enables a user to move, click and scroll a cursor on-screen. It can be printed and assembled for about $50, compared to the $1,000 to $1,500 that similar retail devices sell for. “I designed and made the project for a friend who is a quadriplegic and interested in figuring out how to play video games,” says Field. “I got the idea from a YouTube video of a commercially available sip n’ puff controller that was really expensive.”
• Fusion 360, autodesk.com/products/fusion-360/
• Level The Curve, levelthecurve.com
• LipSync, makersmakingchange.com/project/lipsync
• Makers Making Change, makersmakingchange.com
• PTW Design & Development, ptwdd.com
• NW Inventors’ Network, nwinventorsnetwork.com
• The ’Sup, instructables.com/id/The-Sup-a-Mouse-for-Quadriplegics-Low-Cost-and-Ope
• Thingiverse, thingiverse.com
• Tinkercad, tinkercad.com
• What is 3D Printing and How Does It Work? youtube.com/watch?v=Vx0Z6LplaMU\