What to Know About 3D Printed Files for Visually Impaired People

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on October 12, 2022
4 min read

3D printing is not a new concept, as it can be traced back to the 1980s. 3D printing as we know it today is the process of turning a digital model into a tangible, solid, three-dimensional object. The world of 3D printing has become increasingly more popular in recent times thanks to its accessibility, cost-efficiency, and low-profile technology. 

3D printing has been introduced as an additional tool for visually impaired people, along with braille and tactile models that help them navigate the world around them using their sense of touch. These tools all share the common characteristic of creating raised objects that visually impaired people can use to read and visualize objects, maps, drawings, and more that they may miss out on due to their impairment.

3D printing is also known as additive manufacturing technology, which gives insight into how 3D printed files are created. The basic idea of how 3D-printed files are created dates back to 1983 when Charles Hull invented the first stereolithography apparatus (SLA) machine, which uses UV light to cure and bond resin that is built up layer by layer to create an object. It was in 1986 when Charles Hull co-founded 3D Systems, which allowed blueprints for 3D designs to be translated for 3D printers.

The 3D printing process we utilize today starts with creating a 3D blueprint using software that is commonly known as computer-aided design (CAD). Designs can also be made by using a 3D scanner, which takes photos of an object from different angles and creates a blueprint from those photos. If a person is unable to or prefers not to create their custom design, some files can be accessed and downloaded from others who are skilled in 3D printing.

Once the 3D blueprint is created, it is separated into "slices", which are the different layers of the given model. The printer itself is then prepared for use and the necessary materials are inserted into it. Concerning the raw materials for the printing, there are a few options to choose from, including plastics, binding solutions, and metal powders. Once the printer is ready for use and the design has been translated for the printer, it will work through a process called material extrusion, which is the layering of the material over and over again until the object is created.

3D printing has proven to be a beneficial tool for visually impaired people, as it allows them access to information that might otherwise be presented in a manner that must be seen with the eyes, or is too small, large, dangerous, or delicate to touch in real life. A study showed that people that are blind from birth can receive tactile information at a faster rate compared to those with normal vision, making 3D print models and other tactile tools an effective way for visually impaired people to perceive the world around them at a similar rate to those that have normal vision. 

Although 3D printing is a beneficial tool for visually impaired people, it does require a blueprint or design created and translated to the printer before it can be used. This is a complication for visually impaired people, as they are not able to facilitate this process on their own. However, this is where 3D print files come into play, as these files include the blueprints to previously created projects that can be downloaded and shared. The most common type of file used with 3D printing is called standard triangle language (STL) and is available on several websites and databases for use by anyone who might need it. With a growing community of 3D print model creators, accessibility for visually impaired people is continuing to expand, and these files provide numerous benefits. Some include:

Going beyond braille. Braille is a commonly known tool for visually impaired people. It consists of raised dots that can be read with the fingers to portray a message to the visually impaired person. Although this has been a widely used and beneficial tool for visually impaired people because it has allowed them access to messages and reading, it comes with its limitations. As an example, in a school setting where braille is being used to relay information, the images, diagrams, and other visual aspects of a textbook are lost. 3D printing allows visually impaired people to receive the full extent of the information by providing them with a tangible object that can be paired with braille to present a full concept.

Improved comprehension of material. A study was done to compare how students comprehended information given to them on a tactile graphic versus a 3D print model. This study showed that the students who were given the 3D print model were more engaged and interactive with the material than were those students who had the tactile graphics. This concept goes hand-in-hand with going beyond braille, as 3D print models offer visually impaired users to have an enhanced learning experience.

Providing life experiences that might otherwise be missed. Many life experiences may be missed as a visually impaired person due to the requirement of sight. A 3D printing allowed a blind mother to see her unborn child when an ultrasound was used to create a blueprint for a 3D print. This shows the opportunities that are possible with 3D printing.

3D printing is the process of creating a three-dimensional object out of a digital blueprint. This is done by a process called material extrusion, which involves the layering of the preferred model material until it creates the desired object. 3D printing may not be a new concept, but it is providing new experiences for visually impaired people. With 3D files becoming widely accessible to the public, visually impaired people can create 3D print files that can enhance their learning experiences and overall life experiences.