3D printing or additive technology has the potential to revolutionize a number of industries. While 3D printing will never (I always hesitate to say never) replace manufacturing processes like injection molding or tool & die, it does provide the opportunity for the creation of one-off projects or rapid prototyping. For those unfamiliar with 3D printing, it is the creation of real, three-dimensional solid objects from a digital model using a process of additive printing. The three dimensional object is gradually built-up by laying down thin layers of a material. Advanced techniques can create objects in multiple colours, different materials and with complex moving parts.
3D printing is already changing lives as demonstrated in the story of Emma, a little girl born with arthrogryposis multiplex congenita (AMC), a condition that causes stiff joints and underdeveloped muscles. Emma spent much of her first two years in casts and undergoing surgery. As she grew she was able to move with the aid of a walker but she still couldn’t lift her arms.
At a conference for AMC families, Emma’s mother Megan saw a demonstration of the Wilmington Robotic Exoskeleton (WREX), a device made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands. The WREX enables kids with underdeveloped arms like Emma to feed themselves, brush their teeth and play. After the demonstration Megan met with the presenters, Tariq Rahman and Whitney Sample, both from Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware.
They tested Emma successfully using the WREX at their workshop, but the device was too large to use at home. They needed to scale the device down to her size, but the parts needed would be too small for their CNC system to be able to fabricate. Instead they used a Stratasys 3D Printer to create a smaller prototype of the WREX in plastic. By using 3D printing the researchers are able to make design decisions to improve the prototype, and then immediately print the part needed to make it work.
As Emma adapted quickly to the plastic exoskeleton and wears it at home, preschool and during occupational therapy, she referred to the WREX as her “magic arms.”