Occupational therapy is a healthcare profession that uses various treatment methods, including the use of assistive technology, to help individuals achieve independence in their daily activities. 3D printing (3DP) is a technology that allows for the creation of three-dimensional objects by laying down successive layers of material. In occupational therapy practice, 3D printing can be used to create customized assistive devices, such as prosthetics or adaptive equipment, for patients with specific needs. Many educators are introducing this technology to students in OT school.1 This do-it-yourself assistive technology can help improve their ability to perform daily activities and increase their independence.2 Additionally, 3D printing can also be used to create models for therapy planning and training. It is being used also in the clinic as well as mass-production. Some researchers are using 3D printed parts for assessments and outcome measure materials, e.g., Evaluation in Ayres Sensory Integration, EASI. 3
3D printing can also be used to promote access by creating low-cost, customized prosthetics, which can be especially beneficial for individuals in low-income communities or developing countries who may not have access to expensive prosthetic options. A therapist can create a 3D printed model of a patient’s hand, for example, and use it to practice different grasping techniques or to test different types of assistive devices. This can help to improve the effectiveness of therapy by allowing the therapist to make more informed decisions about treatment options ahead of time.
Occupational therapists can also use 3D printing to create models of a patient’s home or work environment, which can be used to plan and practice adaptive strategies before implementing them in real life. This may not have been possible before this technology. Additionally, 3D printing can also be used to create models for patient education, allowing patients to physically see and understand their condition or treatment plan such as with body parts and the interaction with the environment.
With modification and activity analysis, 3D printing can also be used to modify and adapt existing devices to better suit a patient’s needs. For example, a therapist could use 3D printing to create a custom grip for a tool or to modify a prosthetic to better fit a patient’s body.4 The only limitation is technical knowledge and creativity.
As there is a wide variety of materials that can be used from plastics to even 3D-printed foods, the choice of material will depend on the specific application and the properties that are required for the final product and its use.
- Plastics are the most commonly used material in 3D printing. They are lightweight, easy to print, and have a wide range of properties, including flexibility and strength. Some examples of plastics that are commonly used in 3D printing include ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene), PLA (Polylactic acid), and Nylon.
- Metals are also commonly used in 3D printing, particularly in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries. These include aluminum, titanium, and stainless steel. They are more challenging to print with than plastics, but they have higher strength and durability.
- Ceramics and composites materials can also be 3D printed. Ceramics are harder and more brittle than plastics or metals, but they have excellent heat resistance and are widely used in applications such as aerospace and medical. Composites materials are made up of two or more different materials, such as plastic reinforced with carbon fiber. They offer a combination of properties from the different materials, and can be used for applications such as prosthetics and aerospace.
- Bioprinting is another type of 3D printing which uses materials such as living cells, growth factors, and hydrogels to create living tissue. Bioprinting is still in the early stages of research and development, and it is not yet widely used in the medical industry, but it has the potential to revolutionize the way we treat diseases and injuries in the future.
- Resins are a type of liquid plastic that are cured by UV light. They are often used for creating detailed and high-resolution parts and are commonly used in the dental and jewelry industries.
- Wax is another material that can be used for 3D printing. It is often used as a prototyping material and can be used to create molds for casting.
- Sand is a material that can be used for 3D printing, particularly in the construction industry. Sand can be bonded together using a binder to create solid structures.
- Wood is another material that can be used for 3D printing. It can be used to create wooden objects with intricate designs and can be used in applications such as furniture and toys.
- Food, as mentioned, is another material that can be 3D printed, and it’s used to create food shapes and designs. This has implications and practical applications for the ADL of eating and IADL of food preparation to make our lives easier with disability or other impariments.
One benefit of 3D printing in occupational therapy is the ability to quickly create prototypes and test them with patients before finalizing a design. This is similar to splint fabrication and modification as needed for the individualized patient. This allows for more efficient design iteration and better patient-centered outcomes. Also, the use of 3D printing in creating assistive devices can also help to reduce the cost and time needed to produce them, making them more accessible to more people. As the technology improves, the time it takes to produce a 3D print will decrease as well as its cost.5 Best of all, this can be done in a clinic or any other setting without taking too much space.
With sensory integration, 3D printing in occupational therapy can be used to create sensory toys and fidgets, which can help individuals with conditions such as autism or ADHD to improve their focus and concentration. These items can be customized to meet the specific needs of the individual, such as providing a particular type of sensory input or being the right size and shape for a person to hold comfortably to help them stay regulated and to promote engagement in occupations such as education, play, leisure, or socialization.
Moreover, 3D printing can also be used to create games, toys and educational materials that can be used in therapy. So there are many implications for using this technology for the occupation of play that an be customized to the child. With more diseases and conditions being diagnosed and discovered as healthcare advances, these items can be tailored to specific patient needs, such as fine motor skill development or sensory integration, and can be used to make therapy more engaging and fun for patients. More engagement and meaning means better progress and outcomes for the patients and their families.
3D printing can also be used in research and education in the field of occupational therapy in schools. For example, researchers can use 3D printing to create models of different body parts or conditions, which can be used to study the biomechanics of movement or the effects of different treatment options in OT labs. Additionally, 3D printing can also be used to create educational models for use in training occupational therapy students, allowing them to better understand and practice different techniques and treatments from a unique occupational therapy perspective.
3D printing assistive technology (3DPAT, DIYAT) has the potential to revolutionize occupational therapy by providing therapists with the ability to create customized, low-cost assistive devices and models for therapy planning and education. This comes with adoption, experimentation, and research before mass execution. Overall, 3DP can help to improve patient outcomes and increase accessibility to therapy for more people than never before prior to this amazing technology.
Getting started these days is easy and very low cost. All it takes is patience, experimentation, and a willingness to learn 3D printing for occupational therapy. Here are some basic steps to help you get started:
- Choose a 3D printer: There are many different types of 3D printers available on the market, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Consider factors such as print size, resolution, and material compatibility when choosing a printer.
- Learn the basics of 3D modeling: Before you can print anything, you’ll need to create a 3D model. There are many software options available, such as Tinkercad, SketchUp, and Blender, that are easy to use and can help you create your first model.
- Create or find a design: Once you have a basic understanding of 3D modeling, you can create your own design or find one online. Websites such as Thingiverse, MyMiniFactory, and YouMagine have a wide variety of designs that you can download and print.
- Prepare your design for printing: Before printing, you’ll need to prepare your design for printing. This typically involves slicing the model into layers and generating G-code, a programming language that tells the printer how to print the model.
- Print your design: Once your design is prepared, you can load it onto your printer and start printing. Be prepared for some trial and error, as the first few prints may not come out perfectly.
- Post-processing: After printing, you may need to do some post-processing, such as sanding or painting, to get the desired finish.
- Keep learning: 3D printing is a constantly evolving field, so it’s important to keep learning and experimenting to improve your skills and knowledge.
- Benham, S., & San, S. (2020). Student technology acceptance of 3D printing in occupational therapy education. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 74(3), 7403205060p1-7403205060p7.
- Slegers, K., Krieg, A. M., & Lexis, M. A. (2022). Acceptance of 3D Printing by Occupational Therapists: An Exploratory Survey Study. Occupational Therapy International, 2022.
- Buehler, E., Hurst, A., & Hofmann, M. (2014, October). Coming to grips: 3D printing for accessibility. In Proceedings of the 16th international ACM SIGACCESS conference on Computers & accessibility (pp. 291-292).
- Hunzeker, M., & Ozelie, R. (2021). A Cost-Effective Analysis of 3D Printing Applications in Occupational Therapy Practice. The Open Journal of Occupational Therapy, 9(1), 1-12.