Evening MBA student Jim Zetzl’s team made the smallest item—but arguably, the most meaningful.
“My daughter has spina bifida,” he explained. “She walks with braces, but to go far, she has a wheelchair. She also has special wheelchairs for sports.”
“One of our issues over the years—and this has been an issue for many people we know—with these wheelchairs is that there are a large number of wheelchair manufacturers. They have a lot of different models and sizes, and each is customized to support a specific person and her needs.”
“Because the wheelchairs are so customized, it’s difficult to get a replacement part when a piece breaks,” Zetzl explained. “It can typically take a month or two for that part to come in. In the meantime, you can use another spare part that isn’t quite right. They try to get you one to use for a few weeks while you wait for the actual part to come in, but it’s a bit inconvenient.”
“When we were assigned this project, I thought: What if the manufacturers could provide the special files for each piece, then you could go to the repair place, select the right part from the catalog and print it. You would have the part you need within an hour or two, and your chair would be back to full-functionality,” said Zetzl.
Zetzl’s team made a small wheelchair part out of plastic within an hour, explaining the part would need to be made out of metal to be a true working replacement part.
“The parts for these wheelchairs are relatively simple. That makes them good candidates for 3D printing,” explained Zetzl. “Most of the parts are small enough and simple enough to print with the quality that could work. I believe 3D printing could revolutionize this process.”
“The ability to get those replacement parts faster, and to be able to customize the chair faster and easier, would be amazing,” said Zetzl. “My daughter has been through spinal cord surgeries and other procedures, and after the surgery, it would be nice to be able to adjust the chair to give her a little more support while she recovers. Often that’s not doable because it takes so long for a new part. If manufacturers could make those adjustments quickly, it would be life-changing.”
“The next phase of this project would be to meet with repair places to identify their level of interest and to see if they’re already working on something like this,” Zetzl added. “Maybe we could be a driver for program improvement in the service they provide our families.”
Frohlich plans to integrate the 3D printing experience in future courses for both undergraduate and MBA students.