Research and Advances
Computing Applications East Asia and Oceania Region Special Section: Hot Topics

Co-Designing Personalized Assistive Devices Using Personal Fabrication

head wearing assistive technology, illustration

Assistive or enabling technologies aim to create more accessible and inclusive solutions for people living with disabilities. This is critical, since many such users rely on technology for daily activities such as mobility and communication. While the problems are global, there are unique challenges that exist in the Asia Pacific region when it comes to developing assistive technologies, particularly assistive devices.

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) estimates that 650 million people in the Asia-Pacific region live with a disability.4 It is also well understood that disability statistics in the region could be significantly underreported. An Indonesian study published by TN-P2K found that accessibility to equal opportunities, environments, education, and employment is significantly modest compared to many developed countries. Similarly, UNICEF “Every Mind” program in Sri Lanka reported that children with learning disabilities are often excluded from mainstream education. In some areas, sociocultural beliefs and taboos are associated with disability leading to social exclusion. This is overshadowed by the economical and geographical challenges.

The great diversity of people living in the region and the inherent differences in the way disabilities manifest in individuals create a demand for personalized solutions.

Inaccessibility to enabling environments and assistive technologies has been identified as a major contributor to the exclusion of people with disabilities in the region. This is further prevalent in rural and underpopulated areas where even in developed countries like Australia and New Zealand, access to technologies and specialists can be difficult to find. Some important challenges in the region include:

Need for personalized solutions. The great diversity of people living in the region and the inherent differences in the way disabilities manifest in individuals create a demand for personalized solutions. It is reported that a major reason for technology abandonment is the “poor fit between the user’s abilities and the system’s characteristics.”2 On top of the compulsory functional requirements, we learn that the social acceptance of technologies creates a big impact on the user experience. For instance, wearable technologies such as smart textiles and jewelry tend to mimic mainstream fashion accessories. In the Asia-Pacific region, fashion is so diverse and intertwined with cultures, there must be a mechanism for personalizing devices to different regions as well as to the individual.

Figure. Researchers at the University of Sydney designed a 3D-printed sensor bracelet to give back control to the hand-impaired.

Affordability. Mass-manufactured technologies leverage the economies of scale, or production at higher quantities to reduce the cost. Markets for enabling technologies are significantly smaller. Therefore, the unit cost of enabling technologies is much higher. Home to many developing countries, people living with disabilities in the Asia-Pacific region find the affordability of technology a major barrier to adaptation.

Access to experts. The region covers many remote, low-population-density areas. For instance, Mongolia and Australia are among the 10 least-populated countries in the world. Access to experts who can help with identifying solutions and making customization needed to fit the user is lacking in many areas, especially in terms of providing timely consultations.

In our research, we examined the cooperative design, or co-design, space of additive and subtractive manufacturing to create personalized assistive technologies.1,3,5 For instance, 3D printing, laser cutting, and conductive inkjet printing can be combined with easy-to-use computational tools to create accessible approaches for non-tech-expert users to create personalized solutions. This is collectively referred to as personal fabrication—a unique solution to situations where mass production, that is, “designed for many,” can be replaced with personal fabrication, that is “designed for the individual.”

Our recent research shows that interactive computational tools can be used to personalize wearable devices, their functionality, and the form factor including the look and feel.1,3 As shown in the accompanying figure, these tools can be utilized to capture the user needs and the expert recommendations to make the devices appealing to the unique needs of the individual5 and significantly improve the quality of operation to fit the abilities of the user.1 For example, if a smart textile solution is needed, it should be easily customizable to be woven into a saree in India and a batik in Indonesia. Not only will this approach be a game changer to fit the unique needs of the user, but the devices can also be easily modified by reprinting to fit changing requirements.

Figure. Design Pipeline: Computational design tool for co-designing devices and printing them through additive manufacturing.

Furthermore, with the increasing affordability of additive manufacturing technologies such as 3D printers, we envision this technology will be available locally, taking the supply chain and logistic issues of rural areas and developing countries out of the equation. For instance, we now have remote sites in Sri Lanka where small-scale and affordable fabrication setups are replicated. We believe that personal fabrication can bring a scalable solution to the challenges of creating accessible technology in the region. Additive manufacturing also elevates the impact of economies of scale since they are always uniquely manufactured.

Finally, since the software tools can operate over the Internet, users and experts can co-design the devices online or remotely and print them locally. This increases access to experts in regional areas.

Our current research funded by the Australian Research Council and the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Australia looks at solving the technical challenges of creating computational co-design tools where an expert in Australia can assist in the development of a personalized device for a child living with cerebral palsy in Sri Lanka. A user with such experience welcomed the approach and commented it is “promising in terms of functionality and affordability.”


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