How 3D printing is about to change the lives of people with disabilities

Posted on June 24, 2016

Better, faster, cheaper

For people with disabilities, assistive technologies can save hours each day and be foundational to independent living. But making the most helpful tools for them is a notoriously complicated, expensive and time-consuming process.

Imagine, though, if virtually any device could be conjured up as needed by anyone with access to a 3D printer. Someone who needs a prosthetic arm and hand, for example, could simply choose one from a digital catalogue of proven designs and have it inexpensively printed to size and fit within just a few hours. If it’s not quite right, not quite comfortable or not quite as useful as predicted, the new device could just as quickly be modified in whole or in part to suit the user’s needs and preferences.


BEYOND THE NOVELTY: "We're working on ways emerging technologies can be leveraged to benefit Canadians," says Queen's engineering professor Claire Davies.

“Adherence is a huge issue in any assistive technology,” says Queen’s engineering professor Claire Davies. “If the end user can decide what they want and it gets done for them – if it’s developed by them for them – they’re going to wear it. We want to make it do-it-yourself technology.”

It’s a future at least partly at hand but 3D-print technology is still evolving. As it does, Davies is experimenting with new ways to best apply it to the development of new assistive devices.

“We’ve had hands printed by a couple of different machines and they really don’t meet quality standards,” says Davies. “So, I’m working on a proposal for a 3D printer capable of working with stronger plastics so we can develop devices that are really useable by people.”

As part of that wider mission, Davies has also secured a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant so she and PhD student, Liz Delarosa, can synthesise information about the state of the art of 3D-printed assistive devices. They hope to learn more about what assistive devices are being printed today in industry and among hobbyists.

“Liz’s background is actually occupational therapy and social work,” says Davies. “Together we’re working on understanding all aspects of the design process so we can build a complete task analysis and understand the functional requirements for designing according to those needs."