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This Assistive Technology Trio Are Improving Lives with 3D Printers

Tamara Kittelson-Aldred had been an occupational therapist for 11 years when her daughter, Eleanore, was born in 1989 with multiple disabilities that eventually required the use of a wheelchair. Kittelson-Aldred’s professional expertise interlaced with her youngest daughter every day throughout her short life until Eleanore's unexpected death in 2001.

“It was already my profession, and then I entered this world of being a parent ... It was quite the transition to learn how to live with my feet in both worlds so to speak,” Kittleson-Aldred said.

After her daughter’s death, Kittelson-Aldred created Eleanore’s Project, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life of children with disabilities and their families. The focus of the project has been centered in Peru, where adaptive technology isn’t common. “It's all about making sure that people have the supports that they need in order to be able to sit up, to function well, to be healthy,” she said. Without these supports, she added, bodies can become distorted with dislocated joints, spinal curvatures, and other complications.

Teaching and mentoring professionals and families in Peru about posture and adequate supports can be fairly complex. “It can be complicated to get some of those concepts across to people, especially if they don't have a background in anatomy, if they don't have a background in medical terminology and how muscles and the skeletal structure works, and especially if you have a language barrier it becomes even more difficult,” Kittleson-Aldred said.

So to make things easier, Kittleson-Aldred teamed up with occupational therapist and Eleanore’s Project board member, Sammie Wakefield to invent Hammie. Hammie is a simplified anatomical model that can be used to demonstrate postural concepts to people who don't necessarily have a medical background.

The Hammie has been an invaluable educational tool for their work in Peru. The only catch was Wakefield had to hand-make each model out of wood. The process was time consuming and the parts tended to wear out over time.

Enter an ex-rocket scientist from the VA.

3D Printed Assistive Technology Devices

assistive technology
Source: Eleanore's Project

In 2016, Brian Burkhardt found himself in Peru volunteering as part of the wheelchair seating and technical team for Eleanore’s Project. By this time, Burkhardt was working as a rehabilitation engineer for the VA. It’s Burkhardt’s job to build assistive technology devices where none exists for people with severe spinal cord or traumatic brain injuries or diagnoses like ALS or MS – “anything that really affects someone's ability to be independent, especially related to mobility,” Burkardt said.

“The first year I was there [Peru], a retired occupational therapist [Sammie Wakefield] brought out this wooden figure called Hammie. It was like a very, very simplistic analog of a pelvis and legs and a spine, and with some rudimentary kind of ligaments that you could tighten or loosen,” Burkhardt said. “And it's intended as a teaching tool for therapists and for patients to show what happens when you're not seated correctly in a wheelchair or you have poor posture when you're sleeping, all of the things that that does to your pelvis and your spine.”

“I'm like, ‘Man, I bet you I could model this up in SolidWorks and we could print these things way easier than you can make them by wood,’" Burkhardt said. Brian had a printer capable of printing in ABS, and had just received his Markforged printer. “I actually started prototyping with ABS, and quickly realized Onyx was the way to go.” So he started prototyping and cycled through iteration after iteration, smoothing out all the kinks. The advantage of a Markforged printer, Burkhardt said, is that “we could just blow through iteration after iteration, and it's very inexpensive and quick.” The Hammie, which once cost $100 in material to make, could now be made with $40 worth of material, while reducing the weight by 35%.

“That was kind of the beginning,” Kittleson-Aldred added.

The project is still in the early days, but the potential to substantially improve the quality of wheelchair seating mobility, especially for people who have complex body shapes and complex movement problems, has risen dramatically. “We think it's going to be able to spread some really important concepts in clear and understandable ways so that people will be able to provide better service both here and in other countries,” Kittleson-Aldred said.

Assistive Technology Services from the Veteran's Association

assistive technology
Source: CNET

The success of the 3D printed Hammie led Burkhardt to use his Markforged printer for several other applications at the VA. He’s been using Markforged technology to improve everything from wheelchairs and augmentative communication technology, to home automation systems and cognitive aids. “We help with integrating all that technology and offsetting the technical burden from the therapist and the patient and letting them focus on their rehab goals,” Burkhardt said.

Brian had used several different PLA and ABS 3D printers at the VA to rapidly manufacture one-off, very, very customized products. However, a lot of these printers required more time tinkering and repairing than actually being put to use. After reading about the continuous fiber reinforcement that only Markforged could offer, the VA purchased a Mark Two. “As soon as I started using Onyx, it was like night and day. The parts coming out were beautiful, they were relatively easy to get to print correctly, and had a great strength and flexibility that we didn't have with ABS.”

Burkhardt’s recent work has focused on custom-use adaptive technology. For example, he developed an adaptive leather punch holder for a veteran-turned-artist who creates intricately detailed designs on leather. Another project created an innovative way for a veteran with a spinal injury to apply her own makeup, a goal she long-pursued.

Other projects on Burkhardt’s docket include individual-specific stylus holders for individuals who have lost their fine motor control but still want to use touch screens, and custom ergonomically designed, organically shaped splints to help prevent muscular contractures for veterans with spinal cord injuries.

“One of the tenets we adopted early on is we don't say no,” Burkhardt said. “If this is what you want to do, we're going to keep working as long as you want to keep working on it. We're going to keep working with the patient to figure it out.”

“I'm so amazed that instead of just saying, ‘Oh well, that's just life, we can't make something out of nothing,’ we are able to say, ‘No, let's make something possible.’ It's inspiring.”

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