Open Source Everything: 3D Print Your Own Assistive Device

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Professors Joshua Pearce and Jacob Reeves worked with student Anita So to make an open source walker. It’s a customizable device, whereby the joints are 3D printed on desktop machines and the tubing is cut to size. The goal of the project is to make a walker that is both open source and customizable, as well as cost effective. You can see the paper here and download the design to play with yourself, if you’d like.

I love this project for six reasons:

  1. For years, Joshua Pearce has been motivating those around him to make all manner of open source replacements and improvements related to a variety of medical, assistive, and laboratory gear. He’s really trying to make a freely accessible, cost-effective technology stack for everyone.
  2. It is an open source hardware design that is free to use.
  3. It is made on a desktop 3D printer, so it is very scalable worldwide and can be made on $200 equipment.
  4. It’s an example of combinatory manufacturing, whereby 3D printing is used for the custom joints, exactly where it is the most cost effective. Meanwhile, standard tubing can be cut to size to augment it and turn it into a complete device. Often, those in the additive manufacturing (AM) industry think only about entirely 3D printed items, but I think that working with other production technologies is actually much more powerful for human-sized products. Whereas, AM is good at unique geometries that are relatively small.
  5. It’s an assistive device, an industry that is so terribly boring and in stasis that it needs to be disrupted.
  6. Potentially, it puts patients and users in charge of their own aids, which could lead to much better devices in the future, as well as a powerful new treatment paradigm.

A Disclaimer

First a disclaimer of sorts. They load tested this thing, but, as we all know, part properties can be undermined by poor material handling and storage, different materials, differing print profiles, and settings. Replicating the same load conditions and safety could be radically different and difficult.

Also, I believe that it’s very good that assistive devices, medical devices, and similar goods are well-regulated. Usually, regulation can mean that innovation is retarded, but safer is better here. One granny with a hip injury because of this item could wipe out the financial and ethical utility of the invention. We must be on the side of the precautionary principle here.

We must also realize that the AM industry has to build a reputation that will last us forever. One misstep could hinder much future progress. Move fast and break things is a fantasy propagated by people who are completely out of touch with the real world. Move fast and break people is not a strategy that will work in reality. 3D printing is a technology that conjures the changeable ether that is the digital world and makes it real. Every time we fail to do so properly, we undermine the core promise of 3D printing.

Stifled Innovation

Taking all of that into account, we should realize that the assistive device market, which is perhaps some $20 to $30 billion in size, is hopelessly awful at innovating. Designs are boring. The devices aren’t ergonomic. There is almost no new product innovation. Patients aren’t listened to and long invisible procurement processes drive the market. Customized assistive devices are almost unheard of. Additionally, wearable technology, sensors, cameras, and computers have made very little headway in this market. Assistive devices can be incredibly stodgy, boring or standard but also hyper expensive. There’s no branding initiatives here. There’s no real progress.

Often assistive devices cannot be borrowed or bought because many individuals don’t qualify for them or cannot afford them. There is a real affordability crisis in home care. Also, a lot of people have novel challenges that require personalized devices. Also people have unique homes, desks, or circumstances that would benefit from a tailored device. Moreover, helpful devices often aren’t covered by insurance and may not be available commercially. In many cases, the devices may be so crucial that it is painful that it isn’t more widely available. Think of this ergonomic asthma inhaler that makes the device easier to hold and use or a simple print that facilitates the opening of a medicine bottle.

In contrast, 3D printed devices could be incredibly cheap and easy to produce. The above examples cost a few dollars at most and would make considerable impacts on the lives of individuals. I also think that, collectively, such items also are a considerable business opportunity. However, this is one solution that could perhaps be better served by the open source community working together. If one thinks of just how impactful assistive devices can be day in and day out, then maybe there should be a global movement to power open source hardware solutions to solve the problem of unavailable and unfit devices. Perhaps, given enough prints, all problems are shallow.

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