3D printing for blind people: The future potential of a cutting edge technology

7. January 2016

Author: Robbie Sandberg

3D printing is most commonly known for its uses in designing and producing machine parts and medical prostheses. In recent years however, 3D printing has been increasingly taken on by private individuals, such as artists and modelling enthusiasts. Blind people, for whom tactility is paramount, are beginning to utilize the possibilities of 3D printing for their own specific needs.

How it works

3D printing is a process in which a heated polymer is extruded layer by layer through a movable nozzle head. As the layers build up, a three-dimensional object takes shape. The shape of the object and so the exact movement of the nozzle head required to produce this shape is specified in a file, created by a software for Computer-Aided Design (CAD). While there are other methods of 3D printing, especially for industrial purposes, the described method applies as regards this article.

The new dimension

3D printing, formerly a purely industrial field, has empowered private individuals to design and create according to their needs and imagination. Manufacturers of 3D printers and software developers have discovered the private market and are offering a wide range of affordable desktop 3D printers, online printing services and design software.

Consequently blind people and their related organizations have started looking into the possibilities that 3D printing might open up for them. Blind people require a lot of tactile material, such as models, maps and Braille labels. These are often handcrafted time-consumingly and expensive to reproduce. A model once designed for 3D printing however, can be reproduced indefinitely at relatively low cost. 3D printing can therefore significantly benefit blind people's education, vocation, assistive technology and life style. If not the new Braille, 3D printing is going to set new standards in academics, especially the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). A class of blind students for instance, will no longer have to pass around a single precious model, which takes time off the lesson and may cause frustration for those having to wait their turn. A 3D printed model can be produced for each student at the click of a mouse. If damaged it is easily replaceable. As a result the learning experience is enhanced and shared equally.

3D printing Braille

When 3D printing tactile material for blind people, Braille labels can be included in the design. The eloquent dots become part of the object and do not have to be printed and attached in a separate process. But putting Braille on a surface poses some challenges. How and where can Braille be best positioned on an object? Is it best printed in layers to the side, that's to say horizontally, or vertically as layers on top of each other? Is it still readable if recessed to make components fit into each other?

3D printing applied

The following examples show that around the world experiments are made to exploit the full potential of 3D printing for blind people in all aspects of life.

The Light House for the blind and visually impaired in San Francisco is breaking the trail in this regard. Accessible media specialists BJ Epstein and Naomi Rosenberg are exploring ways of printing models with ready brailled multiple parts. Their aim is to develop a default process by which tactile diagrams, maps and models can be created on demand. This, they hope, will increase the availability and affordability of educational material for schools and universities. Ultimately they would like to create accessible design software, empowering blind people to become designers themselves. The latest INCOBS podcast is an in-depth interview with the two Accessible media specialists, in which they talk about their experiments and findings.

At the Blindenstudienanstalt, a college for the blind and partially sighted in Marburg, Germany, math teacher Knut Büttner has introduced 3D printed models of geometric shapes as well as models of bones, molecules, waves and visual phenomena such as shadows. His innovations therefore have benefits across the STEM spectrum. 3D printing allows us to make things outside the realm of direct touch literally graspable, says Büttner at the 3D printing fair FabCon. This article is German.

The non-profit organization for the education of blind and visually impaired people in Germany (Verband für Blinden- und Sehbehindertenpädagogik) is hosting a website offering models, brailled implements and games as well as design tutorials for free download.

As a result of a quest for teaching materials for blind and visually Impaired children, Icelandic Bachelor of the Arts Halla Sigridur Margretardottir Haugen has developed a tactile book called "Discover the Body". The 3D-printed book is aimed at 6 to 8 year olds and has gained international acclaim. In an article on the website of the National Federation of the Blind in the USA, the innovator recounts her path to Discover the Body and presents the findings of her research.

Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (StSci) in Baltimore USA are experimenting with 3D printers to deliver Hubble imagery to blind people. If harnessed for purposes of science education, the implications could be truely cosmic.

Wisconsin-based company Beyond Vision is employing a large number of blind and visually impaired people, producing machine parts for, among others, Harley Davidson. The company 3D-printed so called error-proof fixtures, preventing components from being assembled incorrectly and resulting in higher productivity.

Besides providing new opportunities in education and vocation, 3D printing is increasingly used in cultural and personal contexts. As part of an art exhibition, Spain’s national museum Museo Nacional del Prado has provided 3D prints of six of its masterpieces. The project called Touching the Prado was launched to open up new ways of experiencing otherwise inaccessible art for blind visitors.

A social experiment called Touchable Memories claims to evoke old memories for people who have lost their sight, by 3D printing photographs they were once able to see.

In an advertising clip by Brazilian diaper manufacturer Huggies, a pregnant blind woman is feeling a 3D print of her unborn baby’s ultrasonic image. Thus 3D printing reaches into the most private of spheres and raises its treasure to palpability.

Resources

The software for Computer-Aided Design (CAD) recommended by the Accessible Media Specialists in San Francisco is OpenSCAD, which has a Braille plug-in, and TinkerCAD (for online editing). Both are free.
Further information on CAD software and 3d-printing in general can be obtained at www.3ders.org.
There is as yet no CAD software accessible to blind people.

Conclusion

The examples above, which are only a selection representing many more such efforts, show that progress is being made. While it took pioneering teachers and accessibility agents to introduce 3D printing to the blind community, access to this field is no longer limited to the technically minded. Many such individuals and blindness related agencies are sharing their expertise and creations on the internet. The more information becomes available, the more 3D printing will find its way into all aspects of blind people's lives and improve them. The ultimate goal however, is accessible CAD. Up to now, blind people are on the feeling end of 3D printing. It is to be hoped that they can someday access the designing end too.

Comments

Comment by Jan Olsen |

I whish we had 3d printing when I went to school. Tactile material was very rare. What a difference technology is making today.

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