Santa Rosa nonprofit, Marin County software firm seek student ‘problem solvers’ to design assistive tech

A contest that previously drew 17,000 students with its challenge to design devices to improve access, mobility and the quality of life for the blind, vision impaired, elderly and those with other physical restrictions is returning under co-sponsorship of a Marin County company and with cooperation from a Sonoma County nonprofit.

The second annual Make:able challenge will get underway after the registration deadline for submissions on May 1. Winners will be announced in July. Earle Baum Center for the Blind (EBC) in Santa Rosa plans to display some of the Make:able creations produced at its 4935 Occidental Road campus starting in August.

Make:able was founded in 2020 by a partnership between San Rafael-based Autodesk and Printlabs, based in London. The thousands of student entries came from 72 countries. Entrants used Autodesk’s design software and 3D printers from Printlab Ltd.

One of last year’s winning projects was a wheelchair stroller adapter system made by Team WheeStroll students at the private K-12 Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland. The team led by Matt Zigler developed a project exclusively designed for their teacher, Chelsie King, and her husband, Jeremy, so they could both take their baby on walks with a stroller.

After the couple had their first child, and due to a previous brain injury, Jeremy King had balance issues and needed a wheelchair. The solution the students came up with enables Jeremy to push the stroller with one adapter to connect an infant car seat to his wheelchair and another adapter to connect the stroller to the wheelchair.

“While a variety of companies produce and market assistive living aids used by a majority of those physically or vision impaired, these items can be expensive — especially custom-made devices. Many individuals still have difficulty and require unique tools tailored to help them cope with specific limitations,” said Bob Sonnenberg, CEO of the nonprofit Earle Baum Center, who lost sight in one eye due to a detached retina in 2004.

“We are proud to be part of this cooperative Autodesk and Printlab’s Make:able assistive technology design challenge that continues to produce positive results and a variety of useful solutions to aid those with physical challenges, while also preparing students to use state-of-the-art 3D master modeling, rendering, blueprinting and related computer design and 3D printing techniques.”

Sonnenberg will also serve as a judge for this year’s Make:able contest.

“These new products have the potential to give them greater independence and confidence,” he said.

Applicants provide a design brief, a device description, drawings and other data required to build working models or a prototype.

Here are some of the other ideas developed at last year’s inaugural Make:able challenge: writing aids, bottle and jar openers, adapted scissors, pill dispensers, instrument holders, eating devices, hand sanitizer assistants, seat belt release assists, grips for household products such as hairdryers and toothbrushes with recessed finger grooves for ease of holding, and grabbing devices.

“The Make:able challenge would not be what it is today without the support of our partner organizations,” said Jason Yeung, co-founder of PrintLab. “The inspiration and expertise of Earle Baum Center is giving thousands of young people the opportunity to not only learn about sight loss, but to develop a creative open-source solutions library — to be freely downloaded, adapted and manufactured — for anyone in need.”

Yeung said this is only the beginning.

“Our aim is to collaborate with EBC over many years to continually improve Make:able challenge resources and to positively impact more and more individuals,” he said. “As a developer of 3D printing curriculum, we have seen first-hand just how capable young people are as innovators.”

Yeung said he hopes to receive at least 10 great student models in 2022 that PrintLab can 3D print for EBC, and batch produce them if they are popular with the EBC community after testing.

According to Yeung, there is currently no after-action plan to seek funding and investors to support manufacture of viable solutions that surface through Make:able. However, he indicated that “if we do come across submissions that we see potential in, we may act on this and support them in some way.”

This competition does not have a physical presence, it is all done online, including a link to view all of the finalists’ portfolios, with photos of their unique creations and a description of how they work.

The overarching goal is not to see winning projects go on to become marketable items or manufactured at scale, organizers said, but rather to develop a custom solution for an individual and to share the files openly on the Makers Making Change open source library of assistive devices.

“The next generation of problem solvers embraced last year’s competition, demonstrating that they are themselves an emerging disruptive force for good,” said Steven Parkinson, project program manager at Autodesk Education. “Make:able provides a platform for educators that enables their students to immerse themselves in genuine real-life problems, fueled by design thinking strategies and powered by the latest technological tools. Make:able democratizes the boundary between student and professional, providing an experience that young people will benefit from forever.”

The Make:able challenge is open to students of all ages and can be run with design or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) lessons, after-school programs, workshops or as part of distance and remote learning strategies.

Entries will be judged by an expert panel ruling on six categories: Best Inspirational Story, Best Use of Autodesk Software, Best Use of 3D Printing, Best Showcase of Iterative Design, Best Showcase of Customization and Best Open-Source Design.

Prizes include a Pulse 3D printer, Ultimaker 2 Go 3D printer (ages 14-18) or CraftBot Plus Pro 3D printer (over age 18); Original Prusa i3 MK3S+; Filamentive filament bundle; EinScan-SE 3D scanner; and MH Build “The Works!” filament bundle pack.