Makers Use 3D Printers to Create a Kinder, Gentler Future

How do you know when a tech revolution has begun? Here’s one definition, from an Israeli software executive: “It’s when an item that used to cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars to manufacture can be made at home with ten dollars’ worth of materials, using new technology.”

Eitan Tsarfati, a top executive at the Israel offices of software design company Autodesk, further said: “The idea of using new tech, like 3D printers, to create custom devices to those in need of medical or other assistance is going to revolutionize the market, just like manufacturing machines or cars did.”

That revolution was on full display last week during the first-ever TOM:TLV Hackathon For Good, in which entrepreneurs, high school kids, and creative types got together to build a better device to give the disabled or those in need of medical help a boost. TOM (Tikkun Olam Makers) was a “maker” event, where participants use cheap or commonly available products, upgrade them with advanced technology, and create something that will be useful to someone somewhere.

It’s a type of hacking – not of computer code, but of physical goods, with makers trying to “mash up” existing products and technologies to create something new. The Maker movement dates back to 1995, with the advent of Make magazine, which each month shows readers how to do things like build a 3D printer, how to build a rocket and launcher, how to make a guitar out of a guitar box and an amplifier out of a cracker box, and so on.

In the past, “making” has been seen as the provenance of geeks who enjoyed the challenge of turning an old computer case into a portable heater, and the like. But with the advent of 3D printing, said Tsarfati, who was one of the judges that chose the best projects in the Hackathon, making will take on a whole new meaning.

“For the first time, manufactured products will be easily produced to match the needs of the user, instead of the user having to adjust his needs to what the machine produces,” he said.

That possibility will bring about a sea change in the way people buy and use products of all kinds, especially medical ones, that have to be custom-made for users, usually at a very high cost. The 3D revolution, said Tsarfati, will turn every product into a “custom-made” one for each user, without the need for expensive adjustments and changes.

Sixteen projects were on display at the finals of TOM:TLV last Thursday, the culmination of a three-day technology marathon where participants built models and prototypes of aids for people with disabilities. Participants included technologists, designers, therapists, and people with disabilitieswho developed ideas and products that address the challenges of people living with disabilities, their family members, and health-care professionals.

While many of the materials used to create the devices built by the Makers were readily available – plastic, wood, off-the-shelf sensor devices, even Lego – cutting-edge equipment, including 3D printers, laser-cutting machines, and CNC machines (computer-operated milling devices) were used to mold the materials into something useful.

One of the projects created at the event, the mechanical “raptor hand,” has already helped thousands of people around the world, said Yoav Medan, an Israeli who is working on a project to produce artificial limbs for the approximately one in 1,200 kids in Israel born with a badly damaged hand.

“In Israel, kids born with this defect, as well as adults who lose a limb, are entitled to an artificial limb, but they are good for cosmetic purposes only,” said Medan. “In addition, the state is very slow to pay for those limbs.” A much better solution, he said, was the Raptor Hand, developed by an American group called e-Nable, which furnishes free online plans for the production of all sorts of artificial limbs using 3D printers.

A wheelchair bound man uses an automatic book page turner developed at TOM:TLV (Photo credit: Courtesy)

Using connected plastic, much like a Lego construction set, volunteers produced artificial hands for several kids present at the event, without sensors or motors – just wires and strings that the user could pull to manipulate the hand’s fingers, allowing them to pick up and move items using their damaged for the first time in their lives. “It’s very effective as is, so imagine how much more effective it would be if we added a motor,” said Medan.

Other projects included an automatic page-turner, to allow paralyzed individuals who cannot move their arms or hands to read a book independently; a video game developed by a group of volunteers from Intel, who “gamified” physical therapy routines that injured people often find monotonous; a set of crutches that makes relieves pressure on the shoulders, and enables the person using them to easily answer their cellphones; and a system that allows deaf and hard of hearing people to determine when someone on the other side of a door hears their knock, a project, said its Makers, that could help deaf people get jobs as hotel maintenance staff.

Volunteers from Intel work on a project to ‘gamify’ physical therapy routines (Photo credit: Courtesy)

TOM:TLV was an initiative of the Reut Institute and ROI Community, the Ruderman Family Foundation, with partnerships from dozens of Israeli and international organizations, including Intel, Autodesk, Makerbot, Deloitte, Stratasys, Uber, the Shusterman Foundation, and many others.

Large corporations they may be, said Arnon Zamir, TOM:TLV project manager for the Reut Institute, but you don’t need a conglomerate behind you to do positive work. “Technology can help people solve problems, and money or social status is not a barrier. The TOM community that we are developing consists of people from all backgrounds, including tech and design people who care about the community, and want to help.”

The scene at TOM:TLV (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“Shared prosperity is the challenge of all developed nations,” said Reut Institute President Gidi Grinstein. “We, at Reut, are committed to improving the lives of millions of people by deploying the explosive combination of cutting-edge technologies and new opportunities to collaborate globally toward creating extremely affordable products that will help many people remain employable, productive and happy. This is our service to the value and mission of ‘Tikkun Olam.’”

“The Ruderman Family Foundation attaches great importance to strategic collaborations, especially with colleagues such as the Shusterman Foundation and the Reut institute,” said Shira Ruderman, Israel Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation. “We believe that the full inclusion of people with disabilities into society can be achieved through the development of accessible technology and therefore we feel it is important to be a partner in the TOM:TLV initiative. It is our hope that one day these technologies will be developed independently and not based on funding from foundations and other donors.”