3D printing helps UNC student meet critical wheelchair needs


The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has had 3D printers for a couple of years, but they’ve always been restricted to certain classes. Now, as part of the university’s Research Hub Initiative, the printers are open to all students.

With the 3D printers available, students are using their creativity to solve real-world problems.

“It feels very futuristic and science fiction,” said grad student Jeffrey Olander. “I feel like we’re on the edge of something brand new here.”

Olander is using the printer to bring to life a design he created on a computer. Liquid plastic slowly layered to build a modified seat belt for his wheelchair.

“Rather than simply replacing an existing part, I decided to solve an issue that I’ve had for a while, which is that my seat belt tends to droop as I’m sitting in the chair,” Olander said.

He’s reworked the design several times and has also used the printer to create a part for his chair’s joystick.

That freedom comes as part of the university’s new Research Hub Initiative, which encourages UNC students, staff and faculty to explore emerging technologies.

“Your imagination is the limit,” said Danianne Mizzy, the head of Kenan Science Information Services. “We’re here to help people bring physical life and embodiment of their ideas.”

Right now printing is free for students; and depending on the complexity of the design, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 days to complete a project. The objects can be about a 1 foot wide and 6 inches tall.

“We’ve had a lot of people walk by and just come in like a shop off the street and ask what’s going on, take a look, they hear the noises, get a little tour,” said Erin Moore, a graduate student assistant. “Word of mouth spread to their friends, then we get a trickle of printing requests.”

This space in the science library also includes a 3D scanner, which is handy for duplicating parts. For example, Moore said, someone looking to fix a broken part on a dishwasher could scan a matching part and print a new one.

“There’s two matching parts on their dishwasher and one of them breaks,” Moore explained. “They’ll either scan it and recreate it and print it out, or use some digital calipers and just design it from scratch in the software.”

Olander said the access to 3D printing is saving him time and money as he tries to address real-world issues to help him get around.

“It’s very nice to be able to solve some of the challenges … that otherwise I have to defer to a supplier company or wait for insurance to go through its motions,” Olander said.

UNC Chapel Hill’s four 3D printers were each purchased using grants.

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