Director of 3D printing company Layer talks about developments in the industry

Materials World magazine
4 Jul 2016

Ellis Davies talks to Benjamin Hubert, Director and founder of Layer, about the development of the lab’s inaugural project, GO, a 3D-printed wheelchair.

Could you give a brief background of your studio? How did you come to work on this project?

I run a design studio, Layer, which is primarily concerned with industrial design, but we also work in engineering and material research wrapped up in the design process. I’ve been running the studio for around five years. We work with lots of different products, from TVs to phones, wearables to furniture and home accessories. It’s a broad range. 

GO is a two-year project and has involved talking to a lot of wheelchair users, healthcare professionals, physiotherapists and wheelchair distributers. We conducted a six-month interviewing process, followed by a year and a half of trying to develop a wheelchair that answers the issues that came up in the research. Primarily, we looked to create a wheelchair that fits a wide range of people as perfectly as possible to reduce injury, discomfort, and problems caused by the conventional wheelchair prescription process. 

What was the prevailing response from the research?

Basically, that standard wheelchairs do not fit everybody we spoke to. The fitting was described in lots of different ways. Relating to injury and discomfort, some felt it didn’t express their needs, or their taste. Not fitting to the users individuality, be it their body shape, injury, style or choice of features they wanted for their chair was the overriding response. 

What are the key benefits of GO compared with other wheelchairs? What is unique about project?

We combined some of the technical work we do here and the partners we work with to create a system involving body scanning and consultation with a professional. GO emulates the exact shape and needs of the body in three dimensions. We managed this through scanning and collecting data, and through algorithms that transfer the data into a made-to-measure piece of hardware. Those bits of hardware are the seat and the footrest – the two parts that the customer needs to configure and manipulate in order to fit a very wide range of people. 

Which elements are produced using 3D printing?

The feet are 3D-printed using a range of different plastics, a high impact resin, and flexible shock absorbing TPU’s. The footrest is printed in aluminium. All other components of the chair are designed and considered, but are standard components that every chair has. 

Did you always plan to use 3D printing?

No, it came later. We were always trying to find a solution to enable us to have a flexible, adaptive, and responsive system. 3D printing came as a solution, when we started to talk to some of the partners involved, as a solution. The whole chair is not produced using 3D printing because of cost, strength and engineering issues. The cost is an interesting issue because some patents are expiring, and a lot of the materials are becoming more competitive, so the price will continue to be reduced. It became a viable proposition to 3D print some of the components for the chair. 

What was your biggest challenge with the project?

It’s a complex project, so there have been a lot of challenges, and there continues to be as we develop. One of the goals of the project is to try and reduce the amount of struts, fixings and cage-like box structures that seem to be present in current wheelchairs for mechanical strength and, to a degree, cost effectiveness. We wanted to reduce these and put the framework underneath using new production methods, and try to make that as well engineered and competitive as we can. When you try and join up various software platforms, the internal information, the scanning, the interface, the app, and ultimately develop a piece of hardware, putting that all into marketing and distribution is also a massive challenge. 

Why did you choose to take on a project designing wheelchairs? 

As a studio we’ve designed lots of things. We’ve done quite a bit of furniture and seating, and worked with airlines on very technical ergonomic seating. We also work with a lot of technical companies, such as Samsung or companies of a similar background. As a studio we’re very interested in thinking about spaces that we feel need improvement, and people’s lives that we think need to be happier and healthier. Wheelchairs are a product that you see everyday, and are wrapped up in a lot of issues. There’s not a huge amount of development in this product, but fundamentally we’re all aware of it one way or another, whether we see people, know people, or have used or use one ourselves. It’s very front of mind, I think, so for us it was a platform that we thought was an obvious one to approach. 

Is the product commercially available?

We have not quite reached that point yet. There’s a road map ahead of us that does, and hopefully will, involve various different partners. This is not something we are doing on our own. There are many complex commercial conversations going on as much as the challenging design ones. 

3D printing news

3D printing surpasses plastic moulding

Sculpteo, a San Francisco and Paris-based online 3D printing company, has developed a new patented technique called Smoothing Beautifier. This technique allows 3D-objects to be printed through laser sintering with a smooth and glossy finish. This aids 3D printing in the production of high quality parts and branching into consumer products. 

The Smoothing Beautifier currently prints 3D objects in white polyamide plastic.

3D-printed spine

3D additive manufacturer Stryker has introduced the Tritanium Posterior Lumbar Cage through its Spine division, a 3D-printed intervertebral body fusion device. Made of Tritanium, a highly porous titanium alloy, the cage aids in lumbar spinal fixation for use with patients suffering from degenerative disc disease. 

Styker’s 3D printing process has the ability to create porous structures designed to mimic cancellous bone, a spongy bone tissue. The cage has the capability of bony integration or bony on-growth, as well as radiolucency, allowing evaluation of the fusion over a longer term. Tritanium has favourable radiographic capabilities, making it a useful material for the creation of an interbody cage. Stryker’s manufacturing techniques allow precise engineering and the production of porous Tritanium devices. 

The Tritanium PL Cage is available to orthopaedic and neurosurgeons by mid-2016.

Product focus:

1. Granta Design and Senvol have teamed up to create the Senvol Database, a directory of addictive manufacturing (AM) materials and machines. The database will be available within Granta’s software, GRANTA MI and CES Selector. 

With hundreds of industrial AM machines on the market, picking the best option for specific manufacturing or research needs is important for many companies. The Senvol Database provides details of more than 550 machines, and close to 700 materials, allowing users to search and compare AM machines based and supported processes, manufacturer, required part size, cost, and compatible materials. 

2. Chemicals and plastics distributor Nexeo Solutions has launched the Nexeo 3D website, providing exclusive access to Arnitel ID and Novamid ID, premium filament grades designed specifically by DSM for the 3D printing market. Nexeo Solutions 3D is a specialised group within Nexeo solutions, focusing on premium 3D printing filaments for fused filament fabrication, servicing a wide cross-section of industries. 

Through the new e-commerce platform customers can buy filaments or order samples. The combined experience of Nexeo and DSM delivers an in-depth content help guide to aid customers in selecting the right material for their needs.

3. In 2013, MIT began to run a graduate course in additive manufacturing, created by John Hart, Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in Contemporary Technology and Mechanical Engineering. Exploring the fundamentals, applications and implications of 3D printing, the course has sought to provide better hands-on education in the field, and accelerate innovation in design and manufacturing.

In a recent article published in Additive Manufacturing, Hart described the success of his course. Identifying the biggest problem and creative opportunities, Hart and his students have explored unexpected materials, with students producing final projects including printers that can print molten glass, and even ice cream. Many students’ class projects have led to patents and entrepreneurial efforts.