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3D printing enters the world of physical therapy

Dr. Mehlferber and 3D printer
Dr. Jon Mehlferber makes adjustments to the new 3D printer

A new collaboration between the art and physical therapy departments in the University of North Georgia will use 3D printing to create assistive devices for children with developmental disabilities. 3D printing is a process many are still learning about; though it has been used for nearly 20 years in various industrial fields, it has only recently entered the realm of non-commercial use for the quick and easy production of three-dimensional designs. Dr. Jon Mehlferber, associate professor of art, has partnered with Dr. Terrie Millard, associate professor of physical therapy, to lead an undergraduate research project that will use this technology to create cost-efficient devices designed to help these children assimilate into more activities.

Dr. Jon Mehlferber works with the 3D printer
Dr. Jon Mehlferber


How does 3D printing work?

Our machine uses thermoplastic in the form of a thick filament that is drawn into the machine, melted at 220 degrees Celsius, and then extruded from a printer head in a fine thread—similar to a hot glue gun. As the printer head moves on an x- and y-axis, it deposits the thread of plastic on a platform to create a layer of plastic. The platform then moves on a z-axis slightly away from the print head and deposits another layer on top of the first, and so on, layer after layer, until you have a fully-realized 3D object.

How will these devices assist children with developmental disabilities?

The reauthorization of IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) in 2004 has mandated that children be incorporated into all school activities, including extracurricular activities in public schools.  As a result many children with disabilities are participating in track and wheelchair sporting events.  Many products are available to assist with performance of daily activities, but adapting “off the shelf” products to meet an individual’s special needs is not always possible. Children, who quickly outgrow devices, can be especially challenging to help. Conducting research to develop new and better assistive and orthotic devices for children is a worthy goal, and the outcomes will make it much easier for families to find custom-built, affordable devices.

What are the advantages of using a 3D printer to make these devices?

Currently, the significant variance in the level of disability makes creating individualized products time consuming and very expensive. This is only worsened by the fact that children can quickly outgrow the devices. 3D printing makes it possible to design and produce customized, one-of-a-kind objects at a low cost. This gives us the ability to provide much-needed devices for children who could benefit from their use but who don’t have the financial means to obtain them.

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