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Health & Wellness

How 3D Printing Could Make Life Easier for Seniors

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If you’ve heard about 3D printing and thought it was some kind of high-tech wizardry that had nothing to do with you, think again.

Innovations in 3D printing may make everyday life easier and boost independence for seniors. That’s because, for just a few cents and access to a printer, it’s possible to produce gadgets that can assist with activities like opening jars, pulling up a zipper, turning doorknobs, and preparing meals. These are the kinds of routine tasks that can sometimes become more challenging as we age.

Assistive aids and devices have long been available. “But the cost of getting them is often prohibitive,” says Joshua M. Pearce, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Specially shaped spoons that make eating easier or handles that make a toothbrush easier to hold can be expensive, as much as $25 each for a basic aid. Some people need dozens of these devices, and that can get expensive quickly.”

Pearce believes that, with 3D printing, these aids can be produced for a fraction of the cost. To prove this, he recently had a class of seniors and graduate students build a 3D printer from scratch and then, within a week’s time, design and produce assistive aids.

The results were impressive. Many of the students designed aids with an older family member, friend, or neighbor in mind. Working with designs freely available online at Appropedia and MyMiniFactory along with plastic filament made for 3D printing, the students produced dozens of items. These included aids to make it easier for people with arthritis to pull up their socks, put a leash on their dog, open the gas cap on their car, clip their nails, split pills in half, and more. Then, Pearce did an economic analysis of cost.

“We found that using a basic 3D printer and free online designs, it was possible to save people more than 94 percent of the cost of commercially available products,” Pearce says. That typical device that cost $25 could be produced for about a dollar, with the added bonus that designs could be tweaked to meet the needs of the user.

A basic 3D printer cost about $250. “You can easily justify that cost with just a few assistive devices and making toys for grandchildren,” Pearce says.  And, if you don’t have room for a printer at home or interest in learning 3D design skills – fun as that could be – you can still take advantage of the technology. More and more libraries and community centers across the country are offering free access to 3D printers. In many cases, you can either reserve time with the printer or have a staff member print something for you.

Visiting a FabLab, short for Fabrication Laboratory, or a “maker space” is another way to utilize 3D technology. These workshop spaces are loaded with the latest digital tools for turning ideas and designs into useful products. Some may offer professional help, by volunteers or paid staff, with your own projects. Search “fab lab near me” or “maker space near me” for a listing of local resources.

Finally, people who own 3D printers may be eager to show off the technology and put it to use in helping others. Posting a request on your neighborhood social network or your private network for help with printing an assistive device might turn up some eager volunteers. “Every day, 3D printers are getting better, less expensive, and easier to use,” says Pearce. “Once you try the technology, it’s hard not to get excited about what’s possible and how easily lives can be improved.”

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