According to the Wohlers Report 2016, the 3D printing industry was over $5.1 billion back in 2015, and it’s continued to grow into the $10 billion a year industry it is now. But it hasn’t fulfilled everything we thought it would – the 3D printing hype has slowed down, and most people have now realized that a veritable desktop factory won’t be the norm for everyone. But technology journalist and 3D printing enthusiast Kit Eaton says that while we are definitely “a long way from a 3D printer in every home,” some of the less eye-popping 3D printing applications, like industrial manufacturing and production and medical technology, are frequently overlooked. The Human-Computer Interaction Institute (HCII) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) is working to change that.

HCII professor Jennifer Mankoff, who researches assistive technologies and human assistance, says that using customizable 3D printing technology to manufacture assistive technologies and prosthetics is the perfect solution to a large problem, as it allows for a safer, more cost-effective alternative. The US market for assistive devices rings in at just under $1 million: roughly 700,000 people have an upper limb amputation, and about 6.8 million other people have fine motor and/or arm dexterity limitations. All of these people could regain a certain amount of independence through assistive technology.

Mankoff explained, “What people need is simple – a better way to hold a knitting needle, roll out dough or open a jar. Yet finding individually customized solutions to each of these problems is almost impossible. When it comes to such task-specific, custom prosthetics, mass production isn’t really an option.”

We talk about 3D printed prosthetics a lot here. But Mankoff said that the market for assistive technology is only designed around a small number of recipients, and certainly not the millions of people who require devices and technologies that are usually fairly expensive.

“In addition, there’s only so many variations that can be supported by such a market. In contrast, our work at the Institute focuses on individualized tools that meet personal and task-specific needs, we can make hands or arms quickly, inexpensively and they have specific advantages in terms of design flexibility and weight,” Mankoff said.

CMU’s assistive technologies project, created by a research team within the university’s School of Computer Science and volunteer network e-NABLE, aims to develop more inexpensive methods of manufacturing and distributing these life-changing upper limb prosthetics for the people who need them most; one of those methods is obviously 3D printing.

Mankoff said, “[We’ve designed] prosthetic devices for [various] specific tasks: For example, playing the cello, operating a hand-cycle, and using a table knife. By creating task-specific solutions, customized to the needs of the person and a task they care about, we believe it is possible to improve the retention of prosthetic devices. When a prosthetic does not fit the needs of its user well, it is likely to be abandoned. We believe that one way to reduce this is to make more task-specific solutions.”

A young cello player, 11-year-old Kharan Wilbur of Pittsburgh, has only one arm, but the team created a prosthesis for Wilbur so he could play the cello.

Kharan Wilbur, aged 11, can now play the cello with with his 3D printed arm

This specific prosthesis allows for more fine-grain movement than traditionally manufactured prosthetic arms do: prototypes and design ideas can be changed and upgraded several times, as 3D printing makes iterative design much easier. Additionally, while a typical prosthetic hand could cost between $6,000 and $10,000, 3D printing offers more affordable solutions. In addition to helping over 1,500 people since the project began in 2013, CMU’s assistive technologies project allowed Wilbur to play the cello at his elementary school recital.

Mankoff says that the overarching goal of the project is to make the process smarter.

“We are working to develop technologies for tracking use over time so we can discover how 3D-printed prosthetic devices are used, and what opportunities exist to improve their adoption and reduce abandonment. We are also working on new materials and new ways of printing that can increase comfort and support new types of interactive devices.”

Share your thoughts in the 3D Printed Prosthesis forum at 3DPB.com.

[Sources: Forbes, Health Tech Insider, Digital Trends / Images: CMU]

 

 

 

 

 

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