By Hillary Kleck
What is 3D Printing?
So you’ve probably heard it mentioned in the news or shared on social media, and thought, “Wow! That’s awesome!” but now you wonder, “What is 3D Printing and how does it work?” Well, it’s actually pretty simple technology for the infinite possibilities it poses for today and the future.
“3D Printing” is the term used to describe the process of creating a 3-dimensional physical object using a printer that extrudes plastic filament or other material to actually create the object from a digital CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) file.
The printers are shaped like a cube and open in the middle where the object is formed on a flat plate. They each have a moveable arm where the plastic is ejected from a spool (similar to thick fishing line) and fed through an extruder head onto the plate. The arm follows instructions from the CAD file to move around and eject the plastic in the correct areas, building up from the bottom until the object is finished.
How are the digital files created? A designer creates them on a computer from scratch, or can even customize a model created instantly from a 3D scanner or digitizer. If you’d like to see a 3D printer in action, watch this time-lapse video below of a MakerBot Replicator Printer making a replica of the New York Skyline.
How is 3D Printing Used for People with Visual Impairments?
Among the numerous and wide range of current uses for 3D printers, the impact the technology is having on the blind community is impressive. Whether in the classroom, home or museums, tactual models are bringing visual elements from the page and behind the glass, and putting them into the hands of people with visual impairments. Here are just a few examples of what scientists, engineers, teachers and entrepreneurs are doing to make sure this innovative technology is used for good.
- Smithsonian X 3D
- Accessible Science
- Tactile Picture Books Project
- University of California Davis Chemistry Lab
The Smithsonian has launched the Beta program for Smithsonian X 3D with the goal of bringing the hidden collections of exhibit pieces out into the world for education and exploration. The site already hosts many digitized files of popular specimens like the Fossil of a Whale and the Wright Brothers’ Flyer which teachers can print or order printed to serve as tactual models to bring the museum into the classroom.
Physicists and scientists involved in the 3D Astronomy Project at the Space Telescope Science Institute & NASA Goddard discuss how 3D printing is being used in education and research with specific mention of the opportunities for those who are visually impaired.
As a joint project headed by the University of Colorado Boulder, the Tactile Picture Books Project has created 3D models of the pictures in popular children’s stories including “Good Night Moon” and “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” as well as some 3D characters and objects to bring stories to life for children with visual impairments.
The school uses a 3D printer to make tactual models of molecular structures, cells, and other images for blind students that sighted students normally view on a computer screen. Hoby Wedler, a UC Davis Grad Student who was born blind, says this about using 3D printing: “It’s fun when a tool that we build to make things accessible for me, really works to make science more accessible to everyone.”
- 64 Ounce Games
The Thingiverse website is a part of MakerBot where users can share digital model files for downloading and printing. There are many different collections including everything “Braille” to “Mobile Device Gadgets” and tons more, which could make Thingiverse as much a benefit to education as it is to play.
Richard and Emily Gibbs are the power couple behind 64 Ounce Games. Richard, a science teacher with a passion for designing games, and Emily, a dedicated teacher of the visually impaired, teamed up to create and sell accessible games for children and adults with visual impairments. Be sure to check out their products like a 3D Printed Braille Swing Cell!
- Eye Cells
- Bionic Eyes
Scientists are working on the ability to effectively produce retinal cells using tissue and a special piezoelectric printer, similar to an inkjet printer. This technology could aid in research to cure blindness where the nerve cells are an issue. We’ll continue to keep updated on the development of this breakthrough in the future!
What once seemed like the impossible is now becoming more anchored in reality with the science involved in creating a real bionic eye to bring sight back to a blind person. One of the first step seems to be even closer with the Princeton 3D Printing Lab that is integrating LEDs and contact lens.
Want to know more about how 3D printing is affecting medical research and equipment? Check out our article on 3D Printing Medical Innovations in Vision and Blindness.
The Future of 3D Printing
There are various methods and technologies used today, and a growing number and variety of 3D printers will become available as the technology continues to advance quickly. The cost of some 3D printers are decreasing as well, making the idea of them becoming common household technology something of the near future. So now you’ve learned about possibilities for 3D printing, what will you print? Have you already tried your hand printing your own ideas or ordering something to benefit your child with visual impairments? Please let us know! We’re anxious to hear how fellow parents and teachers are using 3D printing today!