MakerBot is the world leader in desktop 3D printing. Very simply, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is the process of building objects layer by layer from a ‘raw’ material.  Almost any material can be made to form an ‘ink’ however plastics are the cheapest and most common material used.

As the popularity of 3D printing has grown, so too has its audience. It is no longer a process reserved for professionals in industry; 3D printing has become the realm of the ‘maker’.  Tinkerers and makers from around the world have adopted the cheap and easy-to-use printers, developing their own ideas into functional products and devices.  Each year, the MakerBot Thingiverse, the world’s largest 3D printing community, runs a series of challenges to improve upon prototypes.

In the most heart-warming event to date, MakerBot last year uploaded a series of 3D designs for 3D printed assistive devices.  The original prototypes were designed at the Bay Area Makeathon for assistive technology in 2015. It was a 72-hour event organised by the Tikkun Olan Makers and United Cerebral Partners of North Bay, and sponsored by

The event drew people with disabilities and those who understood their needs together with a host of engineers, designers and makers. Working with each individual in mind, the makers created innovative assistive devices for people who couldn’t find or afford off-the-shelf products to meet their needs.

Once the prototypes had been created, MakerBot turned the designs over to their Thingiverse, opening the challenge to improve on both software and hardware solutions. The goal was to make the potentially life-changing inventions available to people with disabilities worldwide, and the 3D printing community rose to the challenge!

Jonathan Jaglom, CEO of MakerBot, was blown away by the solutions developed during the Makeathon. “There are thousands of people with disabilities around the world who can’t find off-the-shelf products that address their needs, simply because there is no business case,” he said.  “The Bay Area Makeathon exemplifies how 3D printing can democratize medical innovation, and we’re excited to upload the prototypes to MakerBot Thingiverse to make them available to people around the world for free and allow the global community of 3D designers to improve upon the great work done at the Bay Area Makeathon.”

Many of the inventions were hardware based, such as the Grabber and the iEat: independent feeder. The team behind the Grabber developed a stick especially for Kim Lathrop, who has no arms, to grab and move objects safely with her mouth. Kim was thrilled with the possibilties of the Grabber, saying “This device helps me to do things myself, which is a basic human desire. There are so many things I’ll be able to do now, like setting a table for guests.”

The iEat also gave independence to its users. For those with limited hand control, using a spoon, fork, or knife is a significant challenge. Feeding devices are available, but they are typically expensive and ineffective. Using 3D printed parts, team iEat developed a low-cost device that helps people with limited hand control to feed themselves.

Other inventions took a much more software-based approach, building in computers to their designs. The Carry Crutches team found the solution to carrying drinks without spilling while on crutches. The self-stabilising cup holder is inspired by the gimbals used to steady cameras on aerial drones, and comes in both a mechanical and electrical model. The mechanical version is 3D printed and relies on ball bearings for stability, while the electrical one features motors, an accelerometer and an all-important Raspberry Pi.

The Assistive Technology Challenge saw members of the Thingiverse rethinking, remixing and expanding on the existing designs to create useable real-world solutions for those with disabilities.  Additional Thingiverse challenges include MakerEd Project challenges to help educators bring 3D printing into the classroom, and even a costume challenge, just in time for Halloween.

Desktop 3D printing has introduced a new model of innovation to manufacturing in which anyone can turn ideas into physical objects and develop new products.

Image by Jonathan Juursema (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.