Assistive Technology

How an Ageing Society Profits from 3D Printing

Assistive Tech

Due to changes in society, Assistive Technology is a growing fast. It can help overcome the problems of an aging society. 

As the populations in first world countries are getting older and older, aging and the limitations it causes are becoming problems more common harder to ignore. Demographic change is not simply some abstract numbers in a study, but becoming the harsh reality of developed societies.

“Especially in the developed countries, where the median age will reach 43.7 years, the 60+ age group will gain further importance (…)”

This was stated by Roland Berger consulting regarding major demographic changes happening worldwide by 2030. For the developing countries, they predict the average age to go up by 4.2 years in the next 15 years.

Assistive Tech Offers Help for A Moderate Price

Here lies the chance for emerging business ideas to build support structures tailored for senior citizens. They are restricted in many aspects of life, often worsening with progressing age. Age-related health problems limit their movement and agility. They cause problems with the decreasing capabilities of your hearing, eyesight, smell and taste, sense of balance or overall reaction time.

Assistive tech can help reduce the austerities seniors have to face in their daily lives in essential tasks. The definition of Assistive Technology as per the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, explains very well what kind of objects fall under its category:

Assistive technology is any service or tool that helps the elderly or disabled do the activities they have always done but must now do differently. Such technology may be something as simple as a walker to make moving around easier or an amplification device to make sounds easier to hear (…). In short, anything that helps the elderly continue to participate in daily activities is considered assistive technology.

The right assistive tools can prolong the lifespan in which the older ones can live and fulfill daily tasks independently and become dependent on help from others to the degree where the difference is living at home or having to move to a nursing home. Quite often they don’t want to be dependent and are ashamed they need help. If something gives them the ability to do still things on their own, it’s an enormous gain for them.

Not only for “Old People”

Can you imagine what disability this can help with? (source: Thingiverse)
Can you imagine what disability this can help with? (source: Thingiverse)

Assistive Tech isn’t just a field trying to enhance the aging population. The term is used in the context of learning disabilities, physical disabilities and many more. For every inability you can eliminate, the users profit enormously. Participating in a “normal” life with the least restrictive options is key to feeling equal and living independently.

An example: The most common disability in the United States is Dyslexia. As many as 17% of U.S. schoolchildren may struggle with it, according to, a nonprofit organization helping children with learning issues. It may not be profitable to produce a reading help like this, but it can help a lot and so I think it should be widely available. The same goes for the 3D printable fidget spinner ring, which provides a simple mean of stimulation and occupation for the restless minds of people living with ADHD.

A Low Tech Approach

My spidey sense is...vibrating (source: Thingiverse)
My spidey sense is… vibrating (source: Thingiverse)

It doesn’t always need to be a costly high-tech solution. Many obstacles are small and the simplest possible solutions that cause the least hassle are often the best ones.

While for some tasks there may be special objects needed, things work best when they are designed with guidelines of Universal Design. It is an inclusive design philosophy “meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities.” according to Wikipedia. This emerged from the earlier barrier-free initiatives. If you don’t equip environments with barriers, but design them with the widest possible range of abilities in mind, you create an environment that works for the widest possible range of persons and situations.

Of course, there are impressive solutions too that require electronic components and software. The “haptic” headband lets you navigate blindly by providing you with acoustic feedback if you’re getting too close to a wall or obstacle.

Just last month, Adafruit wrote a report on the EvoHAX SE hackathon in Philadelphia which was focused on accessibility brought together teams of developers, therapists, and end users. There are many solutions that required a lot of thought and work, but often the simplest solutions are still best, as the winner teams of the hackathon’s contest proved.

Make Accessibility accessible

It's basically a grip extension for seatbelts, and everyone with dexterity or agility impairments profits from it. (source: Thingiverse)
It’s a grip extension for seatbelts, and everyone with dexterity or agility impairments profits from it. (source: Thingiverse)

The advantages of 3D printing all come to effect when you set the goal to create assistive technology. Be it the possibility to try out a lot of prototypes in a short time or the relatively low manufacturing cost. Or consider the fact that you can customize everything, from prosthetics to simple aids as flexible finger splints. Maybe you face a problem that is very rare and uncommon, so your medical house won’t have them.

Maybe nothing fits right, or there is no product available yet, and you simply need 3D printed doorknob levers and a better bottle opening mechanism because you do not have a good wrist movement anymore.

Inventing a new product or gadget has never been this easy as it is with 3D printing, as you often don’t even need to make your hands dirty. Someone who isn’t good with his or her hands, but has a clear idea of what he needs, can probably create it digitally much faster and more easily than it would take to craft it manually nowadays.

3D Printing Is Cost Effective

Can we all please make the "HU-GO" as big as the Robohand/e-Nable project? (source: Thingiverse)
“HU-GO”, a 3D printed wheelchair, should become as big as the popular Robohand? (source: Thingiverse)

3D printing lets you iterate things and find a working solution through trial and error. Fulfilling a demand should be essential to big corporations, but sometimes it feels like they’re just adapting too slowly. Take a look at the 3D printed seatbelt assist. I can’t imagine no one at those enormous corporations thought of something like that before. But it doesn’t exist on the market. It would be cheap to produce, after all it’s a simple piece of plastic. Someone noticed. Someone did what a whole industry didn’t. This feels incredible sometimes.

Also, don’t forget the cost. I know for a fact that wheelchairs are terribly expensive. In countries where there’s no public healthcare available, many people will never have one although they’d need it. Even with healthcare, you usually have to cover a part of the costs and that isn’t just a bit of change either. And then you see there’s a one man team developing a wheelchair with 3D printed parts and simple materials for a budget as low as possible, for use in third world countries where medical treatment is rudimentary at best.

More than a Crutch

Yep, that's assistive tech too. (source: Thingiverse)
Yep, just a simple 3D printed wedge can be an assistive tech, too. (source: Thingiverse)

Assistive tech can be so much more than the solution to a problem people with disabilities of any kind face. If you go beyond that, there is a lot of room for improvement. Everywhere.

If you have no need for any assistive tech, or so you think, consider this. A simple 3D printed item can help you so you’ll never hit you fingers instead of the nailhead. Meet the “nail helper”. You see- everything that makes your life better can be considered assistive tech somehow. But never call your friends assistive technology. Even if they are robots.