3D Printing and speech pathology

For Better Rehab speech pathologist Angus, a hobby has become a new and engaging way to help participants develop their language and social communication skills.

When Better Rehab speech pathologist Angus decided to delve into the exciting world of 3D printing during the COVID lockdowns, little did he know that his new hobby would have useful applications in his clinical practice as a speech therapist. 

In this blog, Angus explains how 3D printing technology is being used in the allied health sector, how his 3D-printed creations help his participants develop vital language and social communication skills, and why one research team 3D printed a tuna fish! 

Angus, speech pathologist

What is 3D printing? 

3D printing was invented in the 1980s and was largely used by the manufacturing industry to produce prototypes. However, since the early 2000s, 3D printers have become more widely used by corporations and individuals alike. 

3D printing is more akin to manufacturing than traditional ink-on-paper printing (which explains its alternate name, ‘additive manufacturing’) as it ‘manufactures’ three-dimensional objects by layering a material, most commonly plastic, onto a printing surface. 

These special printers follow design instructions from software, usually using files in stereolithography (STL) format, which can be produced by CAD software, including AutoCAD, Google SketchUp and Blender, or downloaded from designers and companies online. 

Today, the desire to improve quality of life combined with the convenience and novelty of quickly and affordably ‘manufacturing’ objects almost anywhere using a machine the size of a bread maker continues to fuel new applications of 3D printing in the allied health and medical sectors. And while some innovations gain worldwide attention for their boundary-pushing creativity (like the 3D printed tuna fish), others are being adopted, and acclaimed, for their ability to improve quality of life, and save money, time and lives. 

What are the applications of 3D printing in speech pathology? 

“My experience with 3D printing started in 2020, during lockdown. I was interested in it as an exciting new technology to play around with. I didn’t anticipate some of the applications it would have to my work as a speech pathologist. Similar to how videofluoroscopy (a moving x-ray of swallowing), electronic tablets like iPads and Telehealth have became common tools for speech pathologists, 3D printing offers new opportunities. 

Some of my favourite items I like to 3D print are models which have 3D design files available online. These include the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot, and the Planet Express Ship from Futurama. These objects aren’t specifically made for speech pathology, however I’ve found myself using them frequently in a number of therapy sessions, including working on a client’s expressive language skills by practicing words to describe objects or using the objects as a conversation starter when targeting social communication skills.  

Some 3D printing ideas that are being explored in Australia and overseas include: 

Tactile symbols for teaching words 

The Center for Literacy and Disability Studies at the University of North Carolina has developed a set of 3D printed objects to help teach people with severe cognitive and visual impairments core vocabulary, such as ‘go’, ‘want’, and ‘not’. 

They are packed with as much communication you can put into an inanimate object including braille, three-dimensional diagrams and tactile patterns. These objects are freely available online from the university for anyone with a 3D printer to print now! 

Keyguards 

A keyguard is a cover that helps to guide the user’s’ fingers to the correct key on a keyboard. Keyguards are useful for people who have difficulties with fine motor control. 3D printing allows customised keyguards to be created with ease and within a short time. 

 Anatomical models 

Some participants, as part of their speech pathology goals, benefit from an understanding of anatomical structures, for example when explaining where they need to place their tongue to make a certain sound, or explaining our swallowing mechanism during swallow therapy. 

Digital 3D designs for anatomical models of the larynx and oral cavity are freely available online and can be printed with relative ease. 

Some of Angus’s 3D printed models: the Planet Express Ship from Futurama, the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars and Crash Bandicoot

3D food printing  

A research team at the University of Technology of Sydney investigated 3D printing of food and the impact of 3D food printing on both quality of life and mealtime safety. Using a 3D food printer in the university’s ProtoSpace Lab, the team filled the printer’s cartridges with cooked pureed food and chose various shapes for it to be printed. 

3D printing food sounds truly futuristic. Speech pathologists often work with people who have difficulties chewing and swallowing, and some require their food texture to be modified. 3D printing is being explored as a way for food to be prepared in an appealing yet safe way. Some researchers have even designed a printed a 3D tuna fish!  

One day 3D food printing might be seen in aged care facilities, disability accommodation, or in the community providing visually appealing food that matches everyone’s texture requirements. 

At this stage this idea seems futuristic as there are considerable challenges to overcome, such as managing contamination and serving food on a larger scale. However, as 3D printing continues to become more accessible, it’s likely solutions will become available and new opportunities will present themselves.” 

Discussing 3D Printing With Angus 

What do you think is the future of 3D printing for speech pathologists? 

“3D printing offers a new tool in the speech pathologist’s toolbox. It’s likely we continue to see new developments and ideas pop up over the coming years.” 

Do you have any practical tips for aspiring or practicing speech pathologists in relation to 3D printing and other new technologies? 

“I encourage any practicing speech pathologist who is interested in this technology from a professional or hobbyist perspective to look into purchasing a printer and having a go. 

“The cost of 3D printers has come down considerably, with some popular models being the same price as Apple air pods. There are a number of extremely active online communities which can help guide someone from being a total novice to a 3D printing expert.” 

Angus’s 3D printer

Other applications of 3D printing in speech pathology and occupational therapy 

Researchers and allied health clinicians around the world have been exploring the benefits of 3D printing in speech pathology and occupational therapy

Research teams have used 3D printing to create customised adaptive devices and splints for occupational therapy patients, including cooking utensils, cutlery, glass holders, mobile phone hand supports, and wheelchair joysticks

3D printing is also making assistive technology for speech pathology and occupational therapy more accessible. A couple of examples of this include a US research team who 3D printed utensils, pill bottle openers, and button hooks to give to the patients of their community OT clinic free of charge, and the allied health team at New York’s Blythedale children’s hospital who 3D printed special switches so their young patients with disabilities could participate in the hospital’s Halloween activities. 

In fact, Blythedale is one of a small number of hospitals in the US that have in-house rehabilitation engineers who work with occupational therapists, speech therapists and physiotherapists to adapt AT devices, equipment and toys using 3D printing to help children with disabilities enjoy improved communication and participate in activities. 

Better Rehab’s Stance On Emerging Technologies 

If you’re a speech pathologist or occupational therapist who is interested in learning about 3D printing and other emerging technologies that have applications in clinical practice, Better Rehab makes it possible with access to paid study leave. Find out more about being part of the Better Rehab team, or view our available roles we’re currently hiring for

For more articles, head back to our content hub

Scroll to Top