3D printing for vision impaired students

3D printers operate by printing one thin layer on top of another to create a 3-dimensional object. There are many types of printers and materials, but the most common and affordable use a heated nozzle to print with plastic.

3D printed models

When to use 3D printed models

Advantages:

  • often easier to understand than tactile graphics
  • can be cheaper or easier to obtain than traditional anatomy models
  • give access to objects that are otherwise too small, too large, too dangerous, too precious or too rare to be touched
  • can also be valuable for sighted peers in an integrated classroom setting

Disadvantages:

  • models can take up to a day to print
  • size is limited on most printers
  • labelling is difficult, meaning that objects usually require accompanying explanations

3D printers

3D printers are available for use in some universities, schools and public libraries. A moderate level of technical expertise is required to use and maintain a 3D printer.

Common 3D printers suitable for general application range in price from $1300 (Makerbot Mini and Dremel 3D20) to $4500 (Ultimaker 2+ Extended). Cost depends on build size, output quality and ability to be modified.

If you do not have direct access to a 3D printer, 3D Hubs gives online access to 3D printing services in your local area.

Pre-existing 3D models

Building blocks with braille and large print, available from ANZAGG on Thingiverse

Building blocks with braille and large print, available from ANZAGG on Thingiverse

Common pre-existing models of potential value to vision impaired students include anatomy models, terrain and famous buildings.

  • Thingiverse – an enormous repository of free models. Search for models that may be appropriate for accessibility. Models in the ANZAGG collection have all been designed and/or tested for accessibility.
  • librarylyna – biology, chemistry, maths and physics models for vision impaired students
  • Augenbit 3D Druck – German site with mathematical models created specifically for vision impaired students

Creating your own 3D models

Map of Melbourne's CBD, created using TouchMapper

Map of Melbourne’s CBD, created using Touch Mapper

Creating your own models for 3D printing can take anywhere from 5 minutes to a week, depending on complexity. Always look for a pre-existing model first!

  • Tinkercad – a free online entry-level software for creating very simple 3D models with joins suitable for 3D printing
  • Touch Mapper – allows you to create a street map (with roads and houses) of your chosen location from OpenStreetMap data

A free braille font is available at http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:74358 and can be used to create custom text via free OpenSCAD software.

Some things to keep in mind when designing a 3D model:

  • Vertical heights should usually be reduced so that fingers can easily reach the base of a model. Around 5mm is sufficient for walls on a 3D floorplan.
  • Pathways and gaps between objects should be large enough to allow exploration by the fingers. Around 5mm is sufficient for an indented road or pathway. A gap of at least 15mm is recommended for doorways.
  • Braille prints much more smoothly on the side of objects.
  • Permanent marker can be used on white models to provide strong visual contrast for touch readers with low vision.
map of a park created using Tinkercad

3D map of a park, designed using Tinkercad

Further resources

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With thanks to Monash University and the Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching for assistance in development of this page. 

Last updated: March 13, 2017 at 14:10 pm