3D Printing Aids Wheelchair Design
Three-dimensional printers are a new generation of machines that can make everyday things from ceramic cups to plastic toys to metal machine parts—even stoneware vases and chocolate cakes.
Such printers can produce different kinds of objects, using different materials, all from the same machine. VA's Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL), located in Pittsburgh, owns three such printers, and is using them in a unique way: to create and model advanced wheelchair technology.
Garrett Grindle, a research scientist for HERL, says, "3D printing allows us an almost unlimited ability to customize the parts we need—because anything we can draw up on a computer, it can print out!"
Grindle explains that many of the devices HERL creates to aid wheelchair users are first made in quantities of one or two. Once users successfully try them, the designs are then made available to manufacturers to build for distribution to Veterans throughout the nation.
"It's really hard to make these devices in small quantities. 3D printing allows us to do that," he tells us. Grindle also said that 3D printers make it easier to create contoured devices than current manufacturing techniques can. He cited a contoured joystick created by a HERL associate to fit the associate's own hand and help him control his powered wheelchair.
3D printing also helped HERL develop a "powered seating coach"—a sensing system that helped technicians understand whether wheelchair users were making optimal use of the features on their powered wheelchair. The printers created parts to hold the sensors and an associated computer to the chair properly, allowing a feasibility study of the system to be successfully completed.
According to Grindle, 3D printing has allowed HERL to develop equipment for wheelchair users that is "aesthetically appropriate." "We want people to look at what people are using and say, 'Wow! 'That gear is as cool as a new cellphone.'" Because 3D printing can make complicated shapes easily, the prototypes HERL develops can look like products designed by forward-thinking industrial designers like Apple Computers.
HERL's newest printer, obtained last November, allows materials to be printed in color and in patterns, which users appreciate. "We're no longer limited to printing things in black or in chrome anymore." The new machine can also mix materials in building objects, such as hard plastic and rubber.
HERL does not expect to use its printers to mass-produce any items. "That's not our mission," explains Grindle. "You don't really get economies of scale with 3D printing, anyway," he elaborated, although for "niche" items (items with a very small market), 3D printing may present another option for manufacturers.
In the future, Grindle believes that 3D printers will be useful for quickly manufacturing hard-to-find replacement parts for items such as automobiles (Jay Leno already uses one for his fleet of classic cars) and to create items in industries and areas of the country to which shipping times would otherwise be long. He is already aware of others using 3D printers to create custom made prosthetics for Veterans.
"We're not just doing this for technology's sake," Grindle concludes. "We're doing this to get new technology into the hands of Veterans quickly. Things are moving really, really fast—stay tuned!"