If 3D printing has been present at the Rio Paralympic Games, a true innovation laboratory, the maker spirit is still trying to forge a path. Investigation into para-sports and DIY.
Technology serving paralympic athletes was celebrated right from the opening ceremony in Rio on September 7, 2016, with a dance between U.S. snowboarder Amy Purdy and a robotic arm.
— Nikki Fox BBC (@FoxNikkiFox) September 10, 2016
This harmony quickly gave way to the competition, which doesn’t always spare the machines—as seen in the statistics of the Ottobock Repair Service Center situated in the heart of the paralympic village. Open to all athletes by one of the world leaders in prostheses, including those popularized by Oscar Pistorius, the shop had already done more than one thousand repairs in five days of competition (700 wheelchairs and 130 prostheses). And the Ottobock adventure all began with a boat to transport equipment and spare parts from one continent to another. So the mechanical repair shop is the nerve center of the paralympic world, and each team, especially in the wheelchair sports, in addition to a physiotherapist, has its own mechanic.
Used mules for starters
In Rio, Jean-Paul Moreau, vice-president of the French Federation Handisport, explains how the federation offers “mules” to beginning athletes, used wheelchairs that they gradually adapt to their disability and the shape of their body, especially the seat. “It requires an investment of about 3,000€. The better the athlete’s results, the greater the funding opportunities, from companies, their hometown or partners of the federation.”
The best of them are granted equipment by Invacare, the global leader in para-medical equipment and official supplier of France’s paralympic team. In athletics, for example, Jean-Paul Moreau estimates that a competitive carbon wheelchair would cost around 7,000€. So each athlete brings their own wheelchair, which has been meticulously adjusted over time. Each position also has its own specific adjustments. “In basketball, the passer won’t have the same adjustments as the shooter,” the vice-president continues. “So mechanics are particularly important to check the material before each game, for risk of flat tires, etc. A good mechanic reassures the team, and that also affects performances.”
Automobile manufacturers at the wheel
Para-sports technologies are not only costly, they vary widely from one federation to another… Even if France’s team is well equipped, Moreau acknowledged in the sports newspaper L’Equipe in 2010 that while the Handisport had an operating budget of “5 or 6 million euros”, others had around 60 million… The U.S. delegation and its much coveted racing wheelchair has a molded seat that follows the athlete’s 3D scanned contours. “It looks nice, but if it breaks, good luck finding replacement parts,” comments Moreau.
Naturally invested in mobility issues, auto manufacturers are well represented among the partners of the various delegations. French manufacturer Renault, sponsor of the French team, prides itself on building vehicles adapted to particular disabilities and having a hiring scheme that favors disabled workers. Hyundai and Kia Motors will be sponsoring the 2018 Winter Paralympics in South Korea. Technology companies are also investing in paralympics R&D, such as Samsung’s Blind Cap, developed in collaboration with the Spanish paralympic swimming team, a cap that vibrates to let blind swimmers know when to turn.
Presentation video of Samsung’s Blind Cap:
And fablabs in all this?
High-tech companies and big sponsors fund technological innovation in paralympic sports. But what about fablabs and the maker movement, very much involved in “civil” disability, such as French maker Nicolas Huchet, who made his printable arm prostheses popular worldwide? In his view, if fablabs aren’t yet on the paralympic bandwagon, it’s above all because “Fab managers don’t have the opportunity to take their focus away from sustainability in order to invest in such projects.” A basic question of money? Huchet explains the natural communion between companies and high-level sports: “Both athletes and companies aim for results.” However, the man with the Bionicohand believes that “Fablabs can act as springboards on the journey of a disabled athlete looking for solutions.”
“Materials such as titanium and carbon are also more likely to be applied within the company,” Huchet continues. But he thinks that it’s just a matter of time before fablabs embark on their own paralympic adventures. He himself, as he trots around the globe talking about open prostheses and disabled people reappropriating technology, has shared technical data at Fab Lab Berlin with Paul Sohi, expert in Autodesk’s Fusion 360 software, who was 3D printing a prosthesis for German paralympic cyclist Denise Schindler, also competing in Rio.
Developing cyclist Denise Schindler’s 3D printed prosthesis (video by Dezeen):
Industrial 3D printing on the cutting edge
3D printing is also leading the way into open hardware in the paralympic world, as for this family in Kentucky, who pushed open the doors of a university to make 3D printed gloves for their paralympic children rolling wheelchairs. These doors could have been those of a fablab…
Meanwhile, the 3D printing industry is responding to the problems of paralympic athletes. In the U.S., Titan Robotics is augmenting the arm of a paralympic cyclist, and Create Prosthetics is covering the prostheses of a champion paralympic bobsleigher. In Italy, WASP, specialized in altruistic projects such as the 3D printed clay house (which we covered here), is also making equipment for two athletes: one a paralympic canoeist and another preparing for the World Adaptive Surfing Championship in California this December.
Nicolas Huchet believes that modern prostheses could very well write their own page in the history of sports. Case in point: Cybathlon Championship for Athletes with Disabilities, beginning this October 8 in Zurich, Switzerland, which he plans to attend next year (this year was all full). The competition is reserved for people wearing prehensile prostheses, exoskeletons or brain-machine interfaces such as BCI. No basketball or rugby, but races to open a bottle, go up stairs, maneuver a wheelchair through an obstacle course, sometimes by controlling the movement via brainwaves.
1st edition of Cybathlon, presentation video:
Hacking daily life
The transition into daily life is already done, often experienced by the disabled as everyday athletic feats. For example, the London-based collective Hackonwheels are attempting to “disrupt disability” through hacking the technology of mobility in a series of hackathons, the last of which was held on July 16, 2016. Their initiative first saw the light at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, allowing competitors access to customized open hardware wheelchairs. This dedication to DIY is also shared by the Open Wheelchair Foundation.