You may well have seen how the short history of 3D printing has been riddled with controversy surrounding its use in making 3D printed guns. However, concentrating too much on that concerning side of this new technology overlooks the positive things that 3D printing will be able to provide. It appears that being able to print three dimensional objects could be a powerful weapon in the battle for innovative and stylish mobility aids.

This was brought to light last week when the 2013 Dyson Award was announced and a raft of new designs, utilising 3D printing were included among the winners and runners up. Most notable of all was the Titan Arm – a 3D printed upper body exoskeleton, capable of augmenting lifting power by 18kg – which won the award.

The main role of the Titan Arm is to support occupational lifters who risk sustaining a serious back injury in their place of work. But it can also be used for physical therapy and mobility assistance. Titan can help people who suffer from permanent injuries or disabilities to live fully-empowered lives. Using an exoskeleton, both patients and the elderly will be able to regain their independence.

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The James Dyson Award is an international design award that celebrates, encourages and inspires the next generation of design engineers to create something that will help people. The brief was simple: design something that solves a problem. The Titan team have received £30,000 in prize money to go towards producing the arm and a further £10,000 is to be given to the Engineering department at the University of Pennsylvania, where the it was designed and built.

Current similar exoskeletons are prohibitively expensive at more than $100,000 but the Titan’s use of 3D printing means it can be made for less than $2,000 (less than one fiftieth of the cost!). It’s now perhaps the most prominent of several examples of 3D printing being used to provide mobility aids for less physically able bodied people. This something that can only be expected to become more widely used in the future.

The awards also featured many other problem solving designs using 3D printing, including a brain-reading prosthetic hand packed with sensors from a team based in Japan, which came in second place. All of the components of the hand are modifiable and reproducible using a 3D printer.

Beyond the Dyson nominees, another display of what 3D printing can help do is Poppy, the 3D-printed robot. Designed in France, Poppy is helping a researchers to study bipedal walking and human-robot interaction. They were able to design and assemble a fairly large and complex humanoid robot for around a third of the cost of most commercial robots.

Using the 3D printing and their own methods and materials they were also able to make something, from scratch, that more closely resembles the human body than any other robot available. The long term benefit of this is a better understanding of the body and even the potential large scale production of robots using 3D printing.

Beyond these specifics, 3D printing can open up all sorts of more general possibilities for people who need mobility aids. Recently a 3-D printed open source prosthetic limb has been demonstrated on the internet and it’s likely that more will follow. If all it takes to create products like this is a printer, the need for complex material skills will be greatly reduced. Whether you print an entire prosthesis or replace small parts, through 3D printing it will be so much simpler.

3D printing also gives individual users a higher level of engagement in the process of design according to Paul Doyle. He recently told Ability Magazine that “I believe that by enabling access to 3-D printing technologies people with disabilities will have a capacity to create solutions that meet their immediate needs (not having to wait for weeks for parts to arrive) and also be manufactured in a manner that they find aesthetically pleasing.”

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3D printed prosthetic hand

Of course there are still some teething problems, not least the fact that 3D printers are still expensive and not readily available to everyone. But this explosion of 3D printing in design, made so apparent at the Dyson Awards last week, suggests a prominent role for this technology in the manufacture of mobility products. In the future, mobility aids, prostheses and even assistive robots could be easier, quicker and cheaper to produce.

It’s another key component to the new age of disability. Sometimes being less physically able, and a lack of accessibility can quite literally make life a little bit two dimensional. The capability for new, inexpensive and stylish designs that 3D printing brings could be the answer to that in more ways than one.

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