With 3D printers becoming maintream, we will be able to manufacture more and more products ourselves, even prostheses which today can be very expensive if they are manufactured by big companies in small quantities. The GDI study "Robotics and Disabilities" shows projects and startups that are already today producing ready-to-wear prostheses.
In the 20th century nearly all media that we consumed came from large companies. Big film studios have produced almost all films, music companies have produced almost all music that we listened to and danced to, and almost everything we read has been published by large publishers. Meanwhile, the media industry has been completely revamped. Technologies such as smart phones, laptops and the Internet enable all people to produce and distribute films and texts for little money. This is very simple since it is exclusively digital information. Each of us has the possibility to convert them into an analogue form, image and sound, with loudspeakers or monitors.
Devices and tangible things are a different story. It is still usually the case that furniture, kitchen utensils, clothes, etc. are purchased from large enterprises, because we at home do not have the production capacity for these. With the advent of 3D printers it will be possible, however, to self-produce more and more products. As with films or music, only digital information is then loaded from the net; converting digital information into its physical analogue form takes place at home or in the neighbourhood by 3D printers.
Prostheses specifically can be very expensive if they are manufactured by big companies in small quantities. A robotic arm prosthesis, for example, soon costs tens of thousands of Euro. Especially in the case of children, who, because of their growth, will need a new prosthesis once or twice a year, the costs are enormous. For this reason, several projects have emerged in recent years that manufacture prostheses or parts of prostheses in the 3D printer and can thus reduce the production costs to a few thousand Euro. Some of them, such as Open Bionics, sell customised prints themselves. Others, such as e-NABLE, mediate between people who have a requirement and owners of 3D printers. These may be individuals or what are called FabLabs – places where there are publicly accessible 3D printers (see Makery.info for an overview of local FabLabs). 3D printers thus reduce barriers, enabling individuals to obtain customised aids.
Open Bionics and e-NABLE have in common that they do not guard the plans as a trade secret, but make them available to the world as open source material. This means that anyone can use them and modify them freely. The free parts of the open source print data offers untold opportunities for development in a networked world, which companies that do not openly exchange with others can never achieve. Just as a single company could never organise a “Wikipedia”. In this way, the prosthesis can also become customised designer pieces that are not hidden, but are worn and displayed with pride. For children, for example, there are those based on super heroes or Disney characters. Do-it-yourself inventors have already rebuilt their own wheelchairs and made changes to them. However, they have usually only done so for themselves or for their immediate environment. Worldwide networking and open data exchange through Open Source make it possible for do-it-yourself inventors from around the world to share and improve new ideas and as a community to share new ideas and to improve concepts. Often there are complaints that companies or universities have too few exchanges with those affected and by-pass their needs in production.
Networking and the ability of each person to lend a hand guarantee that the needs of interested parties are taken into account. In addition, networking generally produces broader knowledge of technical aids and how they could serve personal needs.
The GDI study "Robotics and Disabilities" shows, how assistive technologies will improve life. The study is available as a free download from gdi.ch/robotik2017.