Personalisation, customised fitting, faster production and much lower costs. Helen Dolphin says there’s much to celebrate in the concept of 3D-printed wheelchairs.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The process is additive, which means that layers of material are laid down in succession until the desired object is created which can be practically any shape or geometry.
As an amputee I’ve been aware of this process for a while as it is already being used effectively to create prosthetic limbs, particularly hands. One of the advantages of 3D-printed prosthetics is that they can very easily be customised and designed to suit the user. No longer are amputees confined by what is available in a catalogue, and I’ve seen some amazing designs, especially for children, including an Ironman hand. But this is not the only advantage; 3D limbs are a fraction of the cost of a standard limb which means prosthetics should become available to many more amputees.
However, it seems 3D printing is not just changing the way that some prosthetic limbs are manufactured. Earlier this year the world’s first 3D-printed wheelchair called “Go” was launched onto the market. The wheelchair designed by Benjamin Hubert is a collaboration between Benjamin’s design agency Layer and 3D-printers Materialise.
Benjamin Hubert said: “The new product aims to remove the stigma from wheelchairs as purely medical devices, and redesign it as a human-centred everyday object.”
When I first heard that wheelchairs were being built using 3D printing I had an image in my head of an entire wheelchair gradually emerging from a printer. However, this is not exactly what happens. The elements which are made from 3D printing are the seat, which is printed from plastic, and the foot-bay, which is printed in titanium. These components are then combined with standard Go wheelchair components, like the carbon-fibre wheels and titanium frame.
Most wheelchair users know that when choosing your seat there are only usually a couple of measurements taken into account, usually your width. However, with 3D printing your entire body is scanned and your needs assessed and then that information is used to create a one-piece seat made to your precise specifications. This results in a wheelchair which should accurately fit your body shape, weight and disability. In addition, users can also take part in the design process by specifying optional elements, patterns and colours. A further advantage of a 3D-printed chair is that it can be manufactured and delivered in two weeks which is much faster than the average six to eight week lead-time of existing customised wheelchair designs.
Whenever there is a major new development in manufacturing processes there is always the question of whether these will replace standard manufacturing methods. Although I know very little about this technology it is clear to see that there are some great advantages especially with regards to cost and the ability to have equipment designed to fit you exactly. I also believe this technology will be of great benefit to the developing world where for many people bespoke prosthetics and wheelchairs are currently out of reach due to their costs.
In the meantime I have not yet been offered a 3D-printed limb but I am sure over the next few years this will become an option and it’s something I’d certainly love to try.