November 7, 2013

The Humanitarian Case for 3-D Printing

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This is not a typical TechNote in that it does not directly involve communications - other than the fact that 3-D printers are connected to a network of some form. But what's the use of having a site like Webtorials if we can't occasionally veer off-topic a little when the conditions warrant?

Today there's no shortage of cases of the misuse and abuse of technology. So it's most refreshing when a case comes up where a new technology is used for something that is probably better than the original intent. And a recent story on the CBS Evening News showcased a truly clever use of 3-D printing.

I'll start by assuming that almost all members of the Webtorials community have a sufficient geek-factor that we're intrigued by 3-D printing - whether we've come up with a realistic use-case or not.  Just the very idea is so cool! And fans of "The Big Bang Theory" fondly remember the episode when Koothrappali and Wolowitz buy a 3-D printer so they can make action figures that look like them.

We have no idea of the legality of this posting that we found on YouTube, and are passing it along for informational purposes only.

The need for 3-D printers started to get deservedly bad press when it was demonstrated that a working handgun could be "printed," thereby circumventing almost all currently available methods for gun control. (After all, having a background check to buy a printer is a bit extreme.) This is yet another example of how something that is invented for neutral or even good purposes can be turned into a method of destruction.

The story on CBS involves a boy who was born with no fingers on one of his hands.  Prosthetic devices are very expensive, and, especially for a growing kid, they could need to be refitted often. Further, a single design for a "hand" might need to be different for a variety of functions. Then the youngster's father happened across a web site talking about 3-D printing for prosthetics. (You can find a good technical description and multiple links here.) 

The video is so very cool, but the really exciting part is where this can take us. The inventors, as referenced in the latter link above, noted that they would like to make this technology available to veterans who have lost fingers or hands. They would be "almost free," and the cost for a single prosthetic finger (according to the above site) can be up to $10,000.

Now, let your imagination stretch this a little. Think of the many, many areas of the world where healthcare is extremely limited, and the cost of prostheses would probably exceed several years of wages for the people living there. With minimal communications equipment, experts could design appropriate prosthetic devices, email the code, and then a local volunteer could "manufacture" the custom device on the spot. Wow!

By the way, for some more examples of 3-D printing and the possibilities (both positive and negative), you might like the slideshow here.

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