Mar 26, 2016 | By Tess

One of 3D printing’s biggest areas of success has been the manufacturing and distribution of assistive devices for disabled people. Before 3D printing and open-source digital files, making any type of prosthetic, especially a customized one, could take a long period of time and cost thousands of dollars, making the assistive devices necessary for people to lead their lives normally inaccessible for the most part. Now, however, thanks to innovative startup companies and organizations the likes of e-NABLE and Limbitless, people with disabilities are starting to get the help they need through the help of 3D printing technologies and innovative makers. In Australia, healthtech startup AbilityMate is also breaking into the field of accessible 3D printed assistive devices and is starting to change the lives of those they help.

The Sydney based started was founded by Johan du Plessis, an expert in electronic engineering and artificial intelligence, and Mel Fuller, Australia’s first female founder of a Makers Place. Both frustrated with the rigidity of the assistive technology industry and recognizing the potential benefits of 3D printing technology, the two set out to base their for-purpose company on the principle of helping disabled people on a one-to-one basis, catering to their particular needs to create innovative, affordable, customized, and open-source assistive devices.

“Everyone is different and especially people with disabilities, their needs are all different so in a lot of cases mass produced products don’t really work for them, so we think that the open source movement, plus what’s happening in the 3D printing space, is really unique opportunity to take a very different approach to the way that devices for people with disabilities are made,” explained du Plessis.

Mel Fuller

The startup is hoping to eventually help change the World Health Organization’s statistic that only one in ten disabled people worldwide are receiving the equipment they need. For now, they are helping one person at a time with specialized devices. For instance, one of their first customers was a teenage girl suffering from cerebral palsy who had difficultly controlling the joystick of her electric wheelchair. Other healthcare professionals had told her it would cost at least $1,000 and take eight months to make the necessary modification to her wheelchair, a long time to wait when you have little control of your movements. When AbilityMate’s device designer Kin Ly asked the 16-year-old what kind of device she wanted and needed, she was shocked by the personalized touch.

Within just three hours, Kin and the AbilityMate team had digitally modeled and 3D printed a device that allowed the teen to control her wheelchair joystick with her middle finger, the only finger she could fully control. The same device was also 3D printed again to be attached to her computer mouse for easy usage. As the device only cost 37 cents to make, the team gave the girl the device free of charge and was rewarded by the difference they had made.

“When she put that thing on the change was like night and day. There were tears in our eyes. For the first time she was driving around in her wheelchair that she could fully control with that one finger. We printed another one for her mouse and you can immediately see that she can use her mouse a lot quicker than normal,” du Plessis said.

Johan du Plessis

“Our mission is to find ways that assistive devices are made, not on a profit basis, but on a for purpose basis. So we’re a for purpose business which means that we do make a little bit of money but only enough to sustain the business,” said du Plessis. “Our main goal is to get people with disabilities worldwide to have the equipment that they need.”

So far AbilityMate has collaborated with Cerebral Palsy Alliance and Ability First in Australia as they are working with the established organizations to get into contact with their existing patients. The young startup has been doing well thus far, having last year earned the top prize for emerging technologies at the National Disability Insurance Agency. Next month, AbilityMate will partake in Remarkable, a disability centered incubator where they will be able to further develop their technology.

With the right investments, the startup is working on developing an online distribution platform for their 3D printed assistive devices, and are eventually hoping to even manufacture electric wheelchairs and exoskeletons for an affordable price. For now, the company will continue to design and manufacture smaller, but equally useful assistive devices, such as joystick controllers, computer access switches, ramps, and customized utensils to help the disabled people they encounter.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Impatient wrote at 3/27/2016 7:51:26 AM:

If only assistive technology provision were as simple as printing off devices. Abilitymate is perhaps still new to the idea of disability and the people whose lives it affects, given its work with 'patients' who are 'suffering'. Delivering products is only step in the process of AT provision- who is locally available and funded to support the processes of identifying solutions, customising, and supporting ongoing use with training, repairs and upgrades? Someone else, long after the easy part (the 3D printing) is done and gone back to the city to collect an award.

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