3D Printing is a process by which a digital file becomes a physical object. Anyone can make anything, it is a plastic renaissance. A combination of factors, such as the incredible cost reduction of 3D printing and the availability of free user-friendly design software, have led to the formation of open-source design communities, turning students, professionals and interested grandmothers into makers.
My family and I have been inspired to invent devices to help my sister. Elizabeth (Betsy) is a sixteen-year-old with Cerebral Palsy and Spastic Quadriplegia who has relied on tailored technologies her entire life to communicate ideas, particularly in classroom environments.
My father Sergio Fernández, has a background in computer engineering, and in the past few years has created multi-platform apps, including various educational apps, among them Memory4You, a successful vocabulary and memorization game that topped educational iTunes charts upon its original release.
One of the most exciting recent projects is a system that allows Betsy to command various aspects of her environment through movement and voice commands. The system is a modified XMBC (an open-source media player), and relies on visual feed from an Intel Perceptual Camera, capable of 3D rendering and infrared. The system is able to detect and distinguish Betsy’s subtle and rather inconsistent motion signals to produce simple commands, such as skipping an episode on Netflix. Betsy is very opinionated about television and takes great pleasure in skipping ahead to her favorite episodes of The Fresh Beat Band.
As her oldest sister and a teacher of students with varying learning styles, I am familiar with Betsy’s delights and frustrations. Promoting her agency is of utmost importance to me. Her particular challenges were the first to inspire my design and fabrication projects in this area:
One of my sister’s challenges is difficulty maintaining a consistent grip of writing utensils. She either focuses on holding it really tightly and can’t move her arm in the desired direction, or tries to follow through with the movement, loosens her grip, and drops the pencil.
Other children with CP face similar coordination difficulties.
I designed a light, flexible glove with a built-in pencil grip, allowing my sister to shift attention from keeping her hand tight, and focus on directing utensil placement on the page, without sacrificing dropping the pencil or marker.
Another example of an assistive prototype I have designed for Betsy is a swimsuit with a built-in flotational headrest, helping her keep her head out of the water while she is in the swimming pool her favorite activity. I have not tested this design yet, but a prototype will come soon!
Personally, I am interested in digital fabrication as a way of promoting inclusivity in education. As a teacher, I have seen digital media processes enhance learning and creativity. I first became interested in fabrication as an undergraduate art student. Having explored the capabilities of parametric design programs through my art practice, I felt comfortable approaching projects in assistive technology that require technical precision.
With this type of design thinking occupying most of my free time, I fell into conversation about assistive technology with an occupational therapist, Debra Fisher, who teaches young children of differing abilities through weekend programming at one of the museums where I work.
She mentioned a few students of hers wanted to participate in sidewalk chalk drawing activities, but had difficulty holding a stick with chalk attached to the end whilst driving the power chair at the same time.
She envisioned a device that could attach directly to the chair, so kids could draw, and practice shaping letters with their entire bodies. I was excited to try and design such a contraption and have since generated a few prototypes.
It has been so much fun to approach each consideration with a new and improved draft. The device has to attach to wheelchairs at varying distances, have a good grip on the chalk, keep the chalk grounded, move up and down with the pavement, withstand curves, etc.
My design work aside, the total material cost of generating three plastic prototypes towards the realization of this project has fallen well under ten dollars.
Design communities across the web have begun producing cost-effective plastic creations that can change lives. Files are free to download and modify, so designs become cleverer with every new iteration. I am a recent member of e-NABLE, a growing volunteer initiative dedicated to creating prosthetic hands. Even the most rudimentary prosthetics traditionally cost thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars. 3D printers are commercially available for under
The cost-reduction in prosthetics has already made an impact around the world. For instance, a hospital in
Uganda uses their 3D printer to generate prosthetic limbs for children in under 24 hours. Easily modifiable 3D files make it easy to customize an invention that can make a tremendous difference in a person’s life. Design in this area is still imperfect in many cases, but the low cost of printing and open-source file sharing mean it can only improve with every draft.
On Thingiverse, the largest open-source 3D file host site, community members have invented and shared creations such as portable ramps, braille files, and adapters that connect to common hardware. Anyone with access to a 3D printer can download and print out these inventions. Designers can modify and repost a new version. It is easy to give credit to the original design and customize a new version that meets individual needs.
3D printing has begun to show its potential as a process that can promote agency and ability. I am excited to continue with this type of design practice, and have started a site dedicated to making inventions for the special needs community come true. Anyone can share proposals for creations that we can plan, design and actualize as a team. I am confident that 3D printing will continue to make a positive impact, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.