When Amanda Boxtel, executive director of the Bridging Bionics Foundation, crushed her vertebrae in a skiing accident 22 years ago, she had to get used to life permanently confined in a wheelchair.
Boxtel is one of six million Americans are who are paralyzed at least from the waist down and need special assistance to achieve mobility, she said in a presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. The reliance on machines like motorized scooters and wheelchairs has a profound implication on a disabled person’s life, providing some degree of mobility, the ability to see somebody face-to-face, or to access many of the spaces able-bodied people take for granted.
But a call Boxtel received from 3D Systems Corporation changed her life with a promise to go beyond mere mobility and get the former athlete back on feet again using a 3D-printed exoskeleton prototype.
The conversation surrounding 3D printing and additive manufacturing has centered on efficiency in the factory and major shifts in the assembly line. But sometimes, said Robin Shandas, a bioengineer at the University of Colorado at Denver who moderated Boxtel,’s presentation, we forget to ask about the end user and how 3D printing helps the life of the individual.
Who is really benefitting, on a personal level, from the rapid changes in additive manufacturing we have enjoyed over the past few years?
“How do we incorporate the science of humanity into our design,” asked Shandas at the Aspen presentation.
Humanity of Design
This is the question that motivated Scott Summit, a vice president at 3D Systems Corporation, to help develop the exoskeleton that would allow Boxtel to stand and walk on her two feet after two decades.
His goal? To “take away the baggage of a medical product—all that it means and all the connotations associated—and turn it into a design product,” Summit said.
On stage in Aspen, Summit demonstrated how his company’s prototype—shaped like a suit of armor from the distant future—latches on to the client’s limbs like an exoskeletal support system. With the help of robotics technology that facilitates movement in the exoskeleton, the client—in this case, Boxtel herself—is able to stand up and slowly take advantage of mobility in the paralyzed limbs.
“I’d eventually like to wear one everyday,” said Boxtel to the audience. “It’s built from me and for me.”
The customized exoskeleton displayed at the Aspen Ideas Festival isn’t the first major foray of incorporating 3D printing into disability advocacy and work.
On Thingiverse, an online community of makers and 3D printers, disability advocates and disabled members of the community are sharing ways to construct a number of 3D-printed devices to make life easier for users with limited mobility: Lightweight and sturdy canes, custom-made portable ramps, and assistive forks and knives are some examples.
One of these Makers in Oliver Baskaran, a British college student, who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair. He also has trouble ordering a drink at bars with friends, so he designed a special cup with a flexible straw that allows him easy access to his drink and, more importantly, the chance to socialize stress free in a pub with his peers, according to an account in the BBC. His solution? Designing it himself on software and manufacturing it himself on his own 3D printer.
Other examples of how 3D printing intersects with disability advocacy are beginning to proliferate. Last fall, Ideas Lab reported on Kegan Schouwenburg, who designs custom-made 3D-printed insoles for people with orthotics to support their walking. Traditionally these insoles have been clunky and ill-fitting, but 3D printing, she said, presents a custom solution.
“We can make incredibly thin, light, structures, so it’s not this big, bulky sweaty wad in your shoe,” she said.
The future of 3D printing and disability advocacy remains promising for those experimenting in this field. Raul Krauthausen, a disability advocate in Berlin, has built a series of customizable ramps using his 3D printer as well as a crowd-sourced map to indicate the most—and least—accessible part of his city. His project is a marriage of additive manufacturing, crowd-sourced digital technology, and old-fashioned advocacy—one that ensures these sorts of interdisciplinary efforts remain well-received.