AbilityMate: harnessing 3D printing solutions for people living with a disability

Back to blog10 months ago by Renee
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The Ability Mate team with two men and two women standing, and one woman living with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair. They are all wearing green Ability Mate t-shirts and are standing in the presentation space of the Remarkable pitch event at the Telstra building
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Not willing to settle for the status quo, two forward-thinking entrepreneurs are harnessing 3D printing solutions to change the disability service industry.

The start-up AbilityMate use a crowdsourcing mentality to bring their business to life, creating open source designs for technology that help people living with disability. Co-founder Melissa Fuller believes that every person with a disability should have access to the assistive device that they need, when they need it.

 “The World Health Organisation have found that one in 10 people with disability don’t have access to the fundamental pieces of technology they need. And the reasons why can be solved in this day and age by changing the way we approach intellectual property and how we conduct inclusive design” Mel said.

“That is why we are co-creating open-source designs for the most needed assistive devices. We set up hubs that enable these devices to be 3D printed for a fraction of the cost, in your local area. Open sourcing the technology means that other people can utilise your blueprint, and help you innovate other products,” said Mel.

Born from obsession and passion

AbilityMate was born when Mel, whose background is in manufacturing and design, met Johan du Plessis, an entrepreneur electronic engineer and now carer for people with disabilities at Cerebral Palsy Alliance. Mel had always been obsessed with design and Johan had always had a passion for technology.

“When I met Johan he helped me understand the pain points that the assistive technology industry and especially people with disabilities deal with on a daily basis such as high expense, wait times, low volumes and lack of customization. It was the perfect duo – Johan was looking for better way to produce assistive devices, meanwhile I in search of a purposeful project. Now the AbilityMate team consists of 5 motivated members who lead a larger community of people who understand the potential impact that 3D printing could have on the disability service industry” Mel said.

Creating an online market place

“We’re creating an online marketplace where a library of designs, including those for wheelchairs, computer access and therapeutic devices appear. From there, people can order a product and it will be locally made at an AbilityMate facility” Mel said.

Changing lives

In June 2015, Johan and Mel decided to experiment by holding a MakersPlace event to bring together makers and people with disabilities. Something really special happened that day, a story that Johan and Mel love to tell.

“A young lady Marusha could not use her electric wheelchair due to spasms in her hands. She was quoted $1000 for a modification and had been waiting six months. She came to MakersPlace, and within three hours industrial designer Kin Ly had worked with her to 3D print a new controller tailor-made for her finger at a cost of just 37 cents. Repeat: three hours and 37 cents!” Mel said.

“In that moment we knew something special had happened. We all had tears in our eyes as she drove around for the first time in months, with a huge smile.”

“We open sourced this design and three months later it was modified and 3D printed for Rick, a man who hadn’t driven his wheelchair independently for eight years! Imagine if we can do the same for ALL assistive devices – that is the future AbilityMate is working towards,” she said.

A year has now passed and AbilityMate has come a long way by creating 20+ more devices, winning the NDIS New World Pitch Competition, running 7+ MakersPlace events and joining the first cohort of Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Remarkable program.

Cerebral Palsy Alliance’s Remarkable program supporting innovative start-ups

The Cerebral Palsy Alliance Remarkable program supports social entrepreneurs such as AbilityMate. The program immerses new start-ups in masterclasses, mentoring, expert coaching and provides seed funding to help them to sharpen their mission and impact.

“Remarkable has really made a difference – surrounding us with key mentors and a ‘brains trust’ of people who reinforce and remind us that we need to survive in the real world,” Mel said.

Set to be a game changer

AbilityMate started when Mel and Johan joined forces to figure out whether they could add value – but what they came out with is an amazing example of how new technology can enable mass customization for a low cost; something that is set to be a huge game changer for people living with disability.