I know profit mongers will have a hard time hijacking 3D printing as ordinary people and even people with disabilities can benefit from it. But even then, I feel a bit disappointed when I see many 3D pundits are sneering at the growth of assistive technologies.

They prefer to focus on profit-driven segments such as toy manufacturing and real estate architectural rendering. While I don’t have any problem with that, I expect them to be more considerate to assistive technology because 3D printing can help to overcome the challenges that this industry vertical is facing currently.

And overcoming the challenges means bringing smiles to many depressed faces.

What is assistive technology?

As the name suggests, assistive technology provides assistance to those people, who need it the most. The term doesn’t refer to any particular technology but a family of technologies. If a particular tool or device helps someone rehabilitate, then it qualifies as assistive technology. If it helps someone to adapt to a certain environment, it is assistive technology.

The role of assistive technology

It’s not a rule of thumb but mostly, people with physical or mental disabilities need the help of assistive technology. The aging population that plagues the North American and European countries poses medical challenges. To meet those challenges, the governments of those countries have been shelling out bundles of money each year.

Don’t forget the handicapped people, those disabled kids, for whom learning itself is a challenge. They desperately need technology to help them. Assistive technology can change their lives, and so, financing its research can bring a better tomorrow.

How 3D printing can help?

No more speculation, here’s what 3D printing has already achieved for assistive technology:

Last month, an event called VA Innovation Creation Series Prosthetics and Assistive Technology Challenge took place in Richmond, Virginia. Many crippled army veterans, who got injured in the battle-zone live miserable lives. The challenge was to design futuristic devices, so the quality of life improves for them.

A 3D printing solution provider called Stratasys stepped forward and helped this noble venture. Stratasys provided fourteen 3D printers that use its trademark Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technique. The printers distributed were Mojo, Fortus 450mc, Fortus 250mc, uPrint and MakerBot.

The two-day event also saw the participation of many accomplished 3D professionals.

Beside this one example, there are plenty other cases wherein 3D solutions functioned as leverage for assistive technology.

3D printed assistive products

A non-profit organization called Enabled by Design has introduced few assistive devices with the help of 3D printing. The co-founder of the organization Denise Stephens suffer from multiple sclerosis. Her illness served as a personal motivation for her to take on the initiative.

Regarding the role of 3D printing, she said “3-D printing has a huge potential to disrupt—it means people with disabilities will have the power to revolutionize the products they use and to make them highly personalized.”

3D-driven DIY is what the organization aims at. In 2013, it held an event called Designathon. The event showcased a large number of 3D-led DIY creations. One of them was a prototype device to heat water. A person can operate it without hands. Another assistive tool was called Fingertip Cacti. Users can wear it on their fingers. The product is for people with motor impairment as they find it difficult to handle spoon and fork.

Enters carbon fiber

It might have been difficult for 3D printing to be useful if carbon fiber filament was not used. Carbon fiber is now widely used as the material for 3D printing because it offers plenty of benefits. I described those benefits at length in my previous article.

Being inexpensive gives carbon fiber a superb edge. The growth of assistive technology is at present heavily reliant on DIY, which means cost is often a roadblock. The use of carbon fiber can help to overcome this roadblock. A white paper issued by Infosys explains how carbon composites have been becoming cost-efficient.

The future

Even though currently there’s a 80:20 ratio to DIY and commercial efforts in the field of assistive technology, I do hope that in the future, profiteers will herald the growth of this vertical. That’s because there’s an excellent market for assistive technologies and digging into it can fetch them profit.