No longer purely for research and prototyping, 3D printing is being used to manufacture enabling devices ranging from prosthetics to hearing aids that are improving the quality of life for many individuals. As a cost-effective and easily-accessible manufacturing technology, the scope of innovation enabled through 3D printing cannot be underestimated as universities big and small are developing inventive new solutions to help the disabled.

A student at Frances Blend opens the map

One inspired project to create aids for the visually impaired has come from the Design Technology Fab Lab located at Pasadena City College.

Under the guidance of Deezmaker's Joan Horvath, the Design Technology Pathway students at Pasadena City College have developed a tactile map for visually handicapped students at the Frances Blend School located in Los Angeles.

Through Horvath's instruction, the PCC team, which consisted of Sandra Perez, Bryce Van Ross, Carlos Andrade, Chi Yeung Chiu, Joseph de Alba and Peter Ngo, developed a design workflow that could easily be replicated by other school districts.

As part of the process, the PCC students had to determine the best way to integrate braille into the final 3D printed map. Since the lexicon of English Braille has three levels of encoding (level 1 is a letter-by-letter transcription, level 2 adds abbreviations and contraction, and level 3 introduces non-standardized personal shorthands) the PCC students had to carefully consider which encoding method would be most appropriate. It was decided that the first level would be best since it's the first level of braille that children often learn. Integrating the longer form of level 1 Braille into a 3D printable map had its challenges. The PCC students had to properly address the informational needs of the Frances Blend students without cluttering the map with too many with surface details.

The final map design

The final 3D printed map is a foldable, portable and durable product, with a side legend that identifies necessary features such staircases, bathrooms, and parking lots. Important locations were made identifiable with a range of tactile textures that enabled the students to navigate the map via touch.

The initial idea to create a tactile map came from Lore Schindler, the Teacher/Technology Coordinator for the Visually­Impaired Program of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Schindler was very satisfied with the final design, stating she was thrilled with the final map and found it to be durable and inviting. The students at the Frances Blend School have concluded it is appealing and reliable as well.

In order to bring the tactile map into reality, the PCC Design Tech students took full advantage of the CAD software and 3D printers in PCC's Fab Lab. The Fab Lab is a state-of-the-art facility that provides students with vital workshops, hands-on projects and internships for evolving industrial-technology careers. PCC students use the facility to tackle challenging projects, such as the 3D printed map, with encouragement from Salomon Davila, PCC's Dean of Career and Technical Education; Deborah Bird, the Director of the Design Technology Pathway at PCC; and Sandy Lee, the Design Technology Faculty Chair.

As the PCC Fab Lab continues to grow we can expect to see more touch-based projects that will help create enriching learning experiences for the broader educational community. Current projects include tactile snap-together molecules to help teach chemistry and 3D printed internal organs for biology.