When asked where the plastic parts in a computer come from, most people will answer correctly: large factories. But factory-made plastic is becoming less universal. With the advent of 3D printing, companies like Stratasys are building tools that allow us to create plastic parts without leaving our desk. As 3D printers become more affordable, their effect on manufacturing will, it’s safe to assume, be dramatic. We won’t know for several years how dramatic their impact will be.
In the field of orthopedics, 3D printing has already changed lives. Emma, a young girl with a condition called arthrogryposis, was once unable to lift her arms. But with the help of a custom exoskeleton, made to Emma’s individual size using a 3D printer, Emma is now able to wave, draw, and hug. As Emma gets bigger, incrementally larger parts for her orthopedic equipment can be printed.
In the past, many assistive technologies were forced to adopt a “one size fits all” approach, because the cost of individualized production was prohibitive. Emma’s experience gives assistive technology advocates reason to be hopeful. As 3D printing becomes more widely available, millions of others with orthopedic disabilities could benefit from unique treatments like Emma has.