Adaptive aids can help with seemingly easy tasks for those with arthritis, such as opening drawers and turning handles, but are often extremely expensive. Adaptive aids are often just small pieces of plastic, but by using additive manufacturing and low-cost 3D printers, companies can save upwards of 94 percent on creating simple household items.
“It never ceases to amaze me what a small piece of plastic sells for,” said Joshua Pearce, the Richard Witte Endowed Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Michigan Technological University. “Anyone who needs an adaptive aid for arthritis should be 3-D printing it.”
In response to these expensive pieces of plastic, Pearce had his students test out different methods of creating adaptive aids. Now, Pearce is the co-author and researcher on a study that analyzes how 20 of the 3D printed adaptive aids his class created can help reduce cost, and meet or improve upon existing products.
Adults with arthritis and other rheumatic conditions often earn less than the average individual, yet they spend almost 12 percent of an average family’s income on medical expenses. Adaptive aids can be mandatory, but pricey, as they help individuals pull on socks, hold toothbrushes, pull zippers, cut food, and perform other everyday tasks. For instance, a pill splitter can cost approximately $24, while a phone holder can reach $50. With 3D printing, these products can cost less than $2 for a pill splitter and .79 cents plus a rubber band for a phone holder.
These 3D printed products are not only cost effective but also customizable. Orthopedic surgeon Jennifer Bow, a visiting scholar at Michigan Tech, recommended students hone their attention to designing adaptive aids since customized products from 3D printers could help her arthritis patients and others. Additionally, a group called Makers Making Change also approached Pearce because they wanted to improve existing designs that could be shrunk, expanded, altered to match hand sizes and grip strength, and match task modification.
“This is the difference between needing to go to someone to get your nails cut and being able to do your own, which, yes, there’s cost savings, but it’s also personal pride and being able to take care of yourself,” said Pearce. “And if your only problem is that the standard nail clipper is too tiny, we can fix that.”
The cost of individual adaptive aid items is not always extreme, but some patients need to overhaul or install multiple adaptive aids, such as installing light switch flippers, which can be costly. 3D printing can help this cost. Pearce’s team only used printers that were less than $500, but this upfront cost of a printer can diminish innate enthusiasm for those interested in creating adaptive aids. Additionally, some individuals who have Medicare or other insurance policies do not have to pay the full price for adaptive aids.
“We printed and analyzed 20 different products and each one has a great return on investment, even for people who can use insurance to purchase adaptive aids with a co-pay, and a printer pays for itself easily,” said Pearce, explaining that the true challenge is not economic. “It’s a slam dunk — but the question becomes, how do people get these aids?”
Pearce isn’t implying that everyone should have a 3D printer in their homes.
“We’re not saying an 85-year-old with no personal computer experience is developing a CAD from scratch and prototyping a design 12 times,” said Pearce, explaining the open source designs are available for free online at Appropedia and MyMiniFactory.
He does envision that nursing homes, doctor’s offices, and physical therapy clinics could be a potential starting point for these 3D printers and their ability to create adaptive aids. Additionally, local makerspaces and libraries often provide access to printers and designs in exchange for fees that cover plastic and printing costs.
In hopes of cheaper adaptive aids, Pearce said his initial assignment has definitely grown from the start of class. Students used Rep-Rap printers that the students built themselves within the first few weeks of class. They also did all their adaptive aid prints with PLA plastic, and focused on handheld items with a loved one or friend in mind.
“All the designs could be made much prettier and better — and that’s the beauty of open source. Because I hope in a couple years that we have a whole array of each one of these ideas that’s built out much further, applied all over the world and customized for individual people,” said Pearce. “This is a new field of 3D printing design that’s just getting started. Lots of people can make real, honest-to-goodness, concrete contributions.”