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3D Printing Supports Senior and Assistive Aids

 [Source:  Flickr ]
[Source: Flickr ]

Charles Goulding and Greer Veon review the use of 3D printing for applications involving the growing senior demographic segment.

Experts suggest that by 2060, 95 million Americans will be 65 years old or older and will represent at least 23% of the total population. Therefore, researchers are investing in 3D printing research in an effort to discover solutions for senior living individuals that will improve their quality of life and everyday tasks. Many additive aid products currently in the market are designed to ensure an easier quality of life or boost a sense of someone’s independence. Some of those devices are:

  • Hearing Aids

  • Dental crowns

  • Canes and crutches

  • Wheelchairs

  • Bed accessories

  • Disabled hand grabbers

Yet, many of these devices aren’t suited for every individual or are valued at high costs without the support of means like Medicare. Many experts suggest that companies making assistive or medical devices will start relying more heavily on the 3D printing industry. Though the technology is making its way into commercial use, some companies are already taking advantage of 3D printing to create prototypes and products that redesign assistive devices.

The Go Chair

 [Source:  Vimeo ]
[Source: Vimeo ]

Benjamin Hubert at his design team at Layer, a London studio, unveiled their made-to-measure, 3D-printed wheelchair in 2016. The Go Chair, claimed to be the world’s first 3D-printed consumer wheelchair, is the result of a two-year collaboration between Layer’s research division, LayerLAB, and 3D printing company Materialise. The wheelchair features a made-to-measure foot bay and seat. Measurements are taken by mapping out the individual user’s biometric information and inputting the data into a 3D printing software. Since the design uses two materials – a semi-transparent resin and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) plastics – the wheelchair provides shock absorption and thus improve the quality of life for wheelchair users. Layer’s made-to-measure wheelchair is the first consumer wheelchair not developed for athletes or as a one-off project.

The M+D Crutch

The traditional auxiliary underarm crutches on the market come from designs created several decades ago, without any modifications to improve comfort or function. Many of these crutches cause excessive strain on the hands and wrists, as well as underarm discomfort. Mobility+Designed, a mobility assistance company, has created the M+D crutch, an alternative crutch and cane system that places the pressure from the hands to a person’s elbows and forearms. The crutches fit a diverse range of heights, and have elbow braces that form to the person’s forearm. The design also holds quick-release straps to keep arms in place or be free if needed. Industrial engineers credit 3D printing as the birth of their product, as the Team used professional CNC and 3D printing services in order to create a photo-ready prototype to test and model how the crutches could be made during production.

Perkins Eastman Rethinks Doorknobs

When Perkins Eastman, and architecture and design firm, brought a 3D printer into their workspace, the company looked at redesigning doorknobs. The handles are facility devices that are all used routinely and those with disabilities unavoidably must engage with. The team looked to redesign door knobs within three categories: handles that adapt traditional forms, handles that rethink the form, and handles that rethink how a door handle can be operated. The resulting handles were a seed handle, twist handle, a hand-held handle, a loop handle, a long handle, and a crank handle. All of these 3D prototypes could still perform the operational function, and the designs were then kept for future use in designing doors where those with disabilities needed a specific function or form.

Companies that invest in 3D printing for manufacturing adaptive aids or similar products like those listed above are likely eligible for the R&D tax credit.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the now permanent Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit that typically ranges from 4%-7% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • Must be technological in nature

  • Must be a component of the taxpayer’s business

  • Must represent R&D in the experimental sense and generally includes all such costs related to the development or improvement of a product or process

  • Must eliminate uncertainty through a process of experimentation that considers one or more alternatives

Eligible costs include US employee wages, cost of supplies consumed in the R&D process, cost of pre-production testing, US contract research expenses, and certain costs associated with developing a patent.

On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act, making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax for companies with revenue below $50MM and, startup businesses can obtain up to $250,000 per year in payroll tax cash rebates.

Universities Redesigning Assisted Aids

3D printing can help provide adaptive aids for a range of problems for senior living, from tasks like putting on socks to more severe issues stemming from arthritis or Alzheimer’s. Universities who are looking to solve these issues see 3D printing as an answer. Outlined below are a few research programs who have designed 3D printed products for elderly individuals that could turn into innovations for the commercial market.

Michigan Technological University (MIT)

Joshua M. Pierce, Ph.D., and professor of science and engineering at MIT, found that while many additive aids have been on the market for years, their rising costs made resources inaccessible to many senior individuals. Looking to find a solution, Pearce and team of students design and produce their own set of 3D-printed adaptive aids. Students created pieces using an older family member or friend in mind as well as free designs from sites like MyMiniFactory or Appropedia. Their 3D printed prototypes made it easier to clasp a leash onto a dog, clip their nails, split pills in half, and more. When the MIT team did an economic comparison, they found that those who use 3D printing to create their own devices save up to 94% of the cost of commercially available items.

University of Arkansas – Fort Smith

While Methodist Village of Senior Living in Fort Smith, Arkansas, provides various experimental centers for residents with memory loss to paint and play with lifelike pets, CEO Melissa Curry noticed that many residents from previous backgrounds involving manual labor did not have tactile items or activities. The center reached out to the faculty of the University of Arkansas Fort Smith’s Applied Science and Technology 3D Printing lab, and together the team manufactured lightweight, soft plastic nuts and bolts. When the printed tools were introduced to Methodist Valley, nurses noticed that memory care patients who previously worked in manual labor gravitated towards the bright nuts and bolt and saw signs that the toys stimulated their cognitive function.

University of Michigan

Though organized activity is provided at many long-term care facilities, many residents can find limited opportunities to explore personal interests or challenges in order to keep their minds sharp. The obstacle in memory care pushed a research team at Michigan University to experiment with providing an experimental “makerspace” with long-term care residents in a New Jersey senior living facility. For the experiment, researchers provided a 3D printer and observed residents for almost 300 hours before conducting interviews with those who created objects. They found that numerous residents designed items that resembled lightweight flower vases and jewelry that were compatible with oxygen masks or other tubes. Many residents were interested and eager to interact with the 3D printing space, with many individuals over 90 years old visiting three times a week.

Moving Forward

As companies and researchers look to improve the quality of life and independence for senior living citizens, the 3D printing industry could provide more cost-efficient and effective devices.

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