Will 3D Printers Make Our Profession Obsolete?


Will 3D Printers Make Our Profession Obsolete?

Date: Thursday, May 7, 2015
Category: Blog

Photo of Ray GrottI want to talk about one big reason I’m pleased that RESNA’s upcoming conference will include courses and workshops on popular tools such as 3D Printing and Microcontrollers, along with presentations on the “Maker Movement” and AT&T’s Connect Ability Challenge. I don’t know about you, but it exasperates me when I see the media promoting yet another 11-year old who has designed a clunky 3D-printed plastic prosthetic hand that “promises to change the lives” of people in less-resourced settings. I have a hard time hearing about designers and entrepreneurs, however well-intentioned, who spend hundreds of hours re-inventing assistive technology devices that are already available at reasonable prices. 
I’m all for efforts to make lower cost options available to people who need them. I think it’s really positive that the DIY/Maker/Open Source movements have the potential to direct a lot of creativity and innovation towards addressing the needs of people with disabilities. We’ve all seen great home-grown solutions designed by relatives, friends, and end users themselves. However, too often it seems as if new initiatives are happening within a bubble of ignorance about existing technologies, people’s actual needs and priorities, and the realities of their environments. Fundamental design methodologies and long-established principles of “appropriate technology,” may appear old school in this era of 24-hour hackathons, but these and the deep body of knowledge held by prosthetists, rehab engineers, OTs, PTs, suppliers, and other designers and service providers are battle and time tested. How do we, as professionals, stay in the game when almost anyone can write an app or print out a hand?
The media will always be infatuated with new technologies and quick solutions, and our culture of disposability doesn’t value long-term durability or usefulness. We can point (plastic) fingers, but some of this is our responsibility as well. How many of us have gotten involved with local Maker groups, volunteered to advise students who’d like to work on projects for people with disabilities, offered to speak to campus engineering clubs, or taken the time to submit our designs to dissemination sites? Do we honor and promote the companies and entrepreneurs who are dedicated to providing quality products and services? Do we lobby for access to AT by the poor and underserved? How well do we promote our members’ achievements and innovations and the work of others in the field?
Fortunately, we have positive examples to point to. There are a number of great university programs introducing students to rehabilitation engineering and assistive technology. Members of our International Special Interest Group, including representative from Whirlwind Wheelchair International and HERL (U of Pittsburgh) have demonstrated how to design collaboratively with people in developing countries. Efforts like the RESNA Student Design Competition encourage creativity within a user-centered design process. The better hackathons and design challenges, such as the one led by AT&T, recruit people with disabilities and AT professionals to mentor and guide the teams. If we all do our part, we can educate the public about what we do and help guide  inventors of all ages and backgrounds, using whatever tools at their disposal, how to “do it right.”   
What do you think? How should our profession respond?
Ray Grott, MA, ATP, RET
May 7, 2015

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