3D Printed Universal Design Products

By Lauren Dexter, Occupational Therapy Student

Current 3D Printing & Accessibility

If you have checked out our most recent blog post, this topic may look familiar as I recently discussed an overview of 3D printed homes and the potential involvement universal design can play in improving these emerging spaces. If you’ve stumbled upon this post before checking out the other, let’s do a quick review. 

3D printing has been around since the first printer was made in 1983 by Chuck Hull. Since then, this technology has evolved dramatically and these days can seem like an abstract concept but put in simple terms, Will Kenton defines it as an additive manufacturing process that creates a physical object from a digital design. The process works by laying down thin layers of material in the form of liquid or powdered plastic, metal or cement, and then fusing the layers together.

My interest in this technology was brought about by attempting to navigate one of our university’s 3D printers to create an adaptive device to allow a parent with hemiparesis, hemiplegia, or an upper extremity amputation to change their baby’s diaper using only one hand. But, as I found out while researching ideas for my previous blog post on 3D printed accessible housing, there are so many more avenues of opportunity to use this technology for the creation of inclusive designs.

As 3D printing has gained popularity, gadgets like the ones pictured below have been designed to improve the lives of those with physical impairments, including 3D printed wheelchairs, hearing aids, prosthetics, specialty adaptive equipment for playing instruments or sports, and interactive 3D printed maps for all those with visual disabilities.

Current 3D Printed Home Modifications

IKEA partnered with another company to provide plans for the creation of a number of 3D printed products to add onto their existing home furnishings to make them more accessible for a targeted group of consumers such as those with mobility, visual, or decreased hand function. These designs were coined ‘This Ables‘ and include:

Designs for improved mobility and safety:

The Glass Bumper: A panel that protects glass doors against collision.
The Insider: Three mirror connectors that make the content of high compartments visible from a low point of view.
The Couch Lift: Special add-on legs making the couch higher for easier sitting down and getting up. 

Designs for those with visual deficits:

The Stuff Reader: A device used to position a special smart sticker that contains information about the compartment content. The content is read aloud using a scanning pen.
Spot on the Shelf: Clear marking of the boundaries of the compartment for people visually impaired.

Designs for improved hand function:

The Pop-Up Handle: A handle enabling the user to open the door using the forearm or the entire hand, without requiring the use of the fingers. 
The Finger Brush: A device that enables holding drawing and painting tools for people with difficulty operating their fingers.

Designs for those with mobility and visual deficits: 

The Cane By Me: A rack used to place the walking cane next to the bed so that it is always available and easy to use.
The Snap Cup: A device that enables people with mobility difficulties to keep a glass close at hand.

Designs for improved hand function and vision:

The Mega Switch: An oversized switch that makes it possible to operate the lamp without the need for precise use of the fingers.
The Easy Handle: A handle for opening the door with the forearm or the whole hand, without having to use the fingers.
The Friendly Zipper: Rings that are attached to a zipper handle and facilitate an easier-to-use grip.
The Curtain Gripper: A rigid handle that makes it easier to open and close a bathroom curtain.

Potential for 3D Printed UD Products & Features

IKEA describes the goal of their designs as making furniture more accessible for people with disabilities by designing these gadgets or add-ons to install onto their current products to make them more functional. While most of these aforementioned designs can assist in modifying aspects of a home, they are geared towards assisting a person with a specific impairment, instead of elements that are aimed for being the most functional for the majority of the population. 

That’s all well and good, BUT how exciting would this be if it was designed into the actual product and it wasn’t seen as an add-on? To explore this possibility more, what if IKEA (and other companies) offered these products in the store alongside all the other add ons they have to their products and it didn’t have to be 3D printed elsewhere? When you go into IKEA you can choose your shelving inserts, so why not some of the items above?  I don’t want to take away from what IKEA is doing because they are thinking in the right direction, but if there’s a need for adaptation then there’s an opportunity for more functionality in the original product, the “thing” that’s being adapted.

Like I said earlier, 3D printing came about in 1983, which brings up another 1983 invention, the Heinz plastic squeeze ketchup bottle. Heinz changed gears from their original glass ketchup bottle to a flatter, not quite as octagonal, plastic squeeze bottle.  



This bottle was originally developed so that kids could pour their own ketchup (using more and therefore buying more bottles) but – the point is – designing a ketchup bottle that was easier to hold had unintended positive functional consequences for many others, including those who struggle with grip. Although this new packaging was never marketed to people with disabilities, it was easily accepted as the new norm for ketchup packaging because it made it more functional for everyone to get every last drop squeezed out of the bottle. While this seems to stray a bit from this post’s intended topic, this example portrays how we can view the potential 3D printing’s customizability has in using principles of universal design to create more functional versions of products that we all use and love.

Final Thoughts

While 3D printing is just beginning to merge with the home building industry, its ability to create less expensive products that provide more versatility in design holds great potential. To reiterate, if there’s a need for adaptation then there’s an opportunity for more functionality in the original product. Blake Ross (co-founder of Mozilla Firefox) sums this by saying, “The next big thing is the one that makes the last thing unusable.”

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