Occupational Therapy students at IUPUI positioned to be early adopters of 3-D printing

3-D printing is a new technology that holds great promise for occupational therapists and their clients. And occupational therapy students in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis will be well-positioned to take advantage of it.

Robin Janson, a clinical assistant professor in the school’s Department of Occupational Therapy, brings her research interest in 3-D applications into the classroom and what she calls her OT Maker Lab, where students learn how to use a 3-D printer to make an assistive device.

Robin Janson with Michaela O'Shaughnessey

Robin Janson with Michaela O’Shaughnessey, a first year ​student in the MS in OT Program.

Janson says that 3-D technology will eventually give occupational therapists an incredible tool to design and manufacture adaptive equipment, assistive devices, therapeutic toys, therapeutic tools, anatomical models, orthotic components and more, from the comfort of their own offices.

She recently wrote about the potential advantages that 3-D can bring: “Consider, for example, a client with arthritis who lacks sufficient grip and pinch skills to successfully remove plastic caps from water bottles because of muscle weakness, joint instability and/or pain. A common approach to restoring independence in this activity is to recommend adaptive technology — for example, a bottle opener. When purchased from a large medical supply company, such a device can cost $13 to $40 — plus shipping and taxes — and take three to five business days to deliver. Alternatively, an assistive device called the “Plastic Cap Wrench” can be made in the clinic, using a desktop 3-D printer from a free online file, for a material cost of 25 cents in as little as 20 minutes.”

The current state of 3-D printing is challenging for occupational therapists to use in a clinic setting, Janson said: “It’s not super user-friendly yet.”

But it’s only a matter of time before the technology improves to the point where it is implemented widely, she said. When it does, Janson wants her students to be prepared to use it as occupational therapist practitioners.

Janson uses a 3-D printer as an instructional tool, printing upper-extremity skeletal models for students in a kinesiology course to take home and use as a study aid. The cost to print each model was less than $10, compared to purchasing one for as much as $100.

First-year IU MS in OT student Liz DeMoss (Class of 2018) shared with Janson that “Building the models helped me see the intricacies of the upper-extremity bones as well as how the bones all fit together. This in turn helped me better understand function and movement of the arm, which was very helpful when studying for kinesiology.”

Janson also uses it to teach anatomical concepts, noting there is one joint motion concept that in the past she was only able to show in photographs or illustrations. With a 3-D printer, she created a larger-sized bones and added ligaments created with latex rubber so students could see the joint in action and readily understand the concept.

3-D printing is also used to provide students with a body-powered prosthesis so they can personally experience how they function and thus be better prepared to train future clients on how to use the devices.

“3-D printing makes that affordable,” Janson said. “It allows me to create instructional devices or tools at a low cost.”

In the 2016 spring semester, Janson started providing students hands-on experience using a filament-based 3-D printer purchased by the Department of Occupational Therapy. In one course she teaches, Janson tasked students with finding an assistive device online that could be downloaded and 3-D printed.

The students schedule time in the OT Maker Lab. “They come in, and we walk through the process of downloading the digital design, setting up the print using printer-control software and then sending the print to the 3-D printer,” she said.

“I like students having a foundation with 3-D printing and a comfort level with the process so that when the time comes, they can be early adapters because they will already have the baseline knowledge.”

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