This is a guest blog that I wrote for our project partner, Disability Rights UK. You can read the original here.
You might have seen an increasing number of articles in the media about 3D printing and digital fabrication in recent years, predicting that we might soon be able to print plastic objects as easily as we print on paper. It can be difficult to separate the hype from the reality—is it really possible or even particularly useful? Through In the Making, we’ve been trying to find out what the possibilities are for disabled people.
3D printers work by building up layers of hot plastic into a shape—a little bit like icing a cake with a piping bag. With it, you can easily create small objects in almost any shape you can imagine. This is where most of the attention has been focused, but other technologies exist, such as laser cutters, which use lasers to cut or etch shapes into wood and other materials. Like a normal printer, these devices can be hooked up to your computer, where you create files that tell the printer what to do. This might be a simple 2D image or text for a laser cutter, or it might be a 3D model created using special software like SketchUp.
However, the real revolution isn’t the technologies themselves—it’s what they mean for the cost of manufacturing. Normally, plastic objects are made by squirting melted plastic into a mould. But these moulds are expensive to produce, which means a one-off, custom item is very expensive as well. The cost can only be brought down by using the mould many times.
3D printing is slower and the quality isn’t as good (although they’re getting faster and better all the time), but a small plastic object can cost only pennies. This means you can easily prototype new ideas in a way that didn’t used to be possible—and if your first one doesn’t quite work, you can just tweak the digital design and print off another version at little cost until you get it right.
DIY Assistive Technologies
For disabled people, this raises some interesting possibilities, especially around assistive technologies. Many of the problems with assistive technologies stem from manufacturing constraints: everyone has unique needs, but normal production techniques force us to use products that are all the same. The more specific your requirements, the more expensive the solution will be. Your needs probably also change over time, requiring you to repeat the whole process of acquiring an aid. All of these problems cause frustration and have been linked to high abandonment rates for assistive technologies.
Digital fabrication can overcome some of these problems. It means someone with suitable skills can design their own devices that meet their particular needs at a reasonable cost. This might be anything from a small device to help open jars, to modifications to a wheelchair, or even prosthetic limbs. If it breaks, or your requirements change, you can easily make another one. You can also share your digital designs online or download designs that people have shared, so you don’t have to start from scratch.
The e-NABLE network is one of the most remarkable examples of this in action. It brings together people all over the world who have access to digital fabrication equipment and connects them with people who need prosthetics. A handful of ready-made designs can be downloaded and tweaked to meet the user’s individual requirements, including both functional and purely aesthetic modifications. This is particularly great for children, who quickly outgrow costly prosthetics and who might be nonplussed by boring functional device, but who might be more impressed if they could get a prosthetic with their favourite super hero’s colour scheme!
Moving Past Assistive Technologies
Use of digital fabrication by disabled people doesn’t have to be limited to assistive technologies. On In the Making, I’ve been working with Philip Connolly from Disability Rights UK and Ursula Hurley from the University of Salford, where we’re attempting to explore how we can engage more disabled people with digital fabrication, and especially how we can move beyond treating disabled people as clients who just make use of the end products. During a series of workshops in Salford, we’ve had many people join looking to build their own assistive technologies, but we’ve also seen other potential benefits.
Amongst these is wellbeing and inclusion, which I think are best demonstrated by the Men’s Sheds movement. Men’s Sheds are communal workshops, mostly run and attended by retired men. They were first started in Australia in response to mental health problems faced by men, who are typically hesitant to access normal mental health provisions. Men’s Sheds bring men together around a shared activity in a non-judgemental space—and after visiting the Westhill Men’s Shed in Scotland last year, it was clear that the effects were remarkable. Not only were men healthier, but they were contributing to their community by taking on projects in the local area. It’s not hard to imagine how being involved in a community of makers could have equal benefits for disabled people.
But the potential benefits are limitless and there is a real chance that these skills could lead to economic benefits. Being able to rapidly prototype ideas and produce small batches makes it much easier for innovators to bring products to market, and there will undoubtedly be an increasing number of jobs that involve digital fabrication. Like the computing revolution before it, those who get involved at the beginning will be best placed to take advantage. Why not try to put disabled people at the front of that revolution?
If you want to try digital fabrication for yourself or learn more, search for a makerspace or Fab Lab in your local area. They make equipment available at low cost and often have weekly open days. For further reading, try Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop by Neil Gershenfeld.
Dr Nick Taylor is a Lecturer at the University of Dundee. He specialises in interaction design, especially the use of technologies to support communities and civic engagement.