|My photo of a 3D printer at an open source conference in 2011|
3D printing is one of those things that still sounds like science fiction. A device that can create a three-dimensional object simply from a digital model? It sounds like the replicators on Star Trek, but really I think 3D printers are one of the coolest technologies to emerge in recent years. I even have a 3D printed d12 (12-sided die) at home to prove it.
There are many applications for 3D printing, from gaming to technology to the medical world. One example is this YouTube story (unfortunately only has automatic captions) of two-year-old Emma, who has a condition that prevents her from moving her arms. She has a 3D printed custom exoskeleton; the 3D printing aspect means that as she outgrows the skeleton, parts can be replaced on an as-needed basis. I can easily see the same potential in hearing aids.
The makers of the Roomba, the company iRobot, have filed a patent which would be able to print the entirety of an object made up of other objects. Currently 3D printers print out parts, which need to be assembled by a human. iRobot is looking to be able to print out an entire functioning object with the help of a new type of printer which would have robotic manipulators.
Hearing aids are also getting into the act. 3D technology is being utilized to customize hearing aids specifically to each patient, a process called CAMISHA (Computer Aided Manufacturing for Individual Shells for Hearing Aids). Widex holds the patent; there's more information about CAMISHA on their website.
In CAMISHA, laser technology makes an image of an individual's ear canal; that data can be used to produce a model by which computers can manufacture a perfectly fitted hearing aid shell or earmold. It sounds much nicer to me than the current process of fitting an earmold, which I get to experience next month when I get my current 3-year-old silicone molds replaced.
I can easily see 3D printing becoming a key component of producing hearing aids, not just earmolds or shells. The digital model for parts of hearing aids and cochlear implants could be easily modified to suit individual users, and items such as tubes and earmolds could easily be replaced as the user grows (for a child) or wears them out. We're definitely living in the future.