If someone uses a wheelchair, they're often stuck sitting in it for 18 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, that leads to problems—it's uncomfortable, and even just turning a wheel all day long can lead to shoulder injuries.
A new wheelchair is designed to help by perfectly customizing its shape to the person using it: Body mapping software takes their 3-D measurements and then the seat and footrest are made to measure with a 3-D printer.
It's a better fit than even customized wheelchairs that are available now. "It's like molding something to the body rather than measuring something with a ruler," says Benjamin Hubert, founder of London-based design agency Layer, which spent six months working with wheelchair users, doctors, and the 3-D printing software company Materialise to design the new wheelchair.
"There's a huge degree of accuracy that we're gaining by ultimately just offsetting the shape body and emulating that in the seat," he says.
The custom seat, printed in a combination of two plastics for shock absorption, creates a center of gravity based on the user's exact shape and weight. The foot bay, printed in titanium, is based on the length and shape of their feet and sitting position. The rest of the wheelchair can be made from standard parts. "It's only really those two components which determine how well the overall wheelchair fits," says Hubert.
The process can take as little as two weeks—far faster than making a custom wheelchair now on an up to eight week timeline. The wheelchair also has other new design touches, like an overlay pattern on the wheels that matches up with a pair of gloves, so it's easier for someone to get a strong grip and push the chair. This relieves the unnatural motion of moving the wheel, which generates pressure on shoulder joints and injuries.
If some 3-D printed objects are in the early stages—it's likely that you're not going to move into a 3-D printed house very soon, or get a 3-D printed heart transplant, or even that your next pair of shoes will be 3-D printed—this is a perfect example of how 3-D printing can be useful now, and make more than plastic tchotchkes.
The prototype wheelchair will be unveiled during Clerkenwell Design Week in London. "This is one of those cases when 3-D printing is actually really appropriate, and not just a marketing stunt," he says.