3D Printing Tactile Graphics 101

3D Printing Tactile Graphics 101

One of the most popular areas in the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (a.k.a. the Lab) are the tactile graphics tables. 3D printing has been in the media a lot over the last three or four years, and no wonder – here are our dreams of Star Trek’s Replicator made flesh at last. The dreams of what these machines can and could do are everywhere - 3D printing on the moon! In space! 3D printed prosthetics! It’s all very exciting. There are also the stories of the magnificent failures of 3D printing, the complaints about the complexity of the software, and the impatience with the limited range of printable materials in the consumer market – it’s mostly plastic. All the same, 3D printing is, in a way, the best and most wonderful thing in the world, not because it is so powerful, but because so many people are testing its limits with enthusiasm and love. That makes for some terrific outcomes. The aim of this blog post is to help you find some of those resources, particularly ones that apply to tactile graphics, and to help you skip some of the frustration of the medium.

Disclaimer: You will note that this post is by a sighted person. That is because, inevitable visual component aside, the software used to create and manipulate 3D models is almost entirely and spectacularly inaccessible.

My focus here will be primarily on tactile graphics, but because much of this doesn’t make sense without an introduction, I will also review the basics of 3D printing briefly. There are a vast number of 3D printing guides available, and Make Magazine, for example, regularly reviews new printers.

Step 1: I need a 3D thingamabob, now what?

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are lots and lots of existing 3D models available from both specialized (APH and the like) and mainstream sources. It is always faster and often cheaper to buy an existing model.
  • If the model isn’t available, check if a .stl file is available. STL is the file format all of the 3D printers use as their base. If you don’t already have a model, try sources like Thingiverse, LibraryLyna and others for existing models. You can use services like Shapeways and Sculpteo to print existing models for you in more materials than you can shake a 3D-printed wrench at.

Step 2: So you want me to make a 3D thingamabob?

  • If there is no existing model, you win. What you win is the fun learning curve of designing 3D objects that will actually print. Because life is short and there is no time to make all the mistakes yourself, I recommend finding someone with 3D design experience who can take you under their wing and/or using some of the simpler design software. My favorites among those are Tinkercad (which comes with great tutorials) and Cubify Invent, 3D Systems custom software that is designed for the Cubes but will work with other printers as well. Everybody has their favorites, so it’s worth trying out a few different options. Autodesk has some nifty apps that some folks like. There are also options like PhotoToMesh that will convert 2D images to 3D, which can be useful for when you need to do that, and is very easy to use.
  • Another option is to use a 3D scanner and to scan objects and then remediate those scans. Here too, it will help to make friends with people who have some expertise, because while many scanners come with “healing” software, this is not a perfect process. Netfabb is one tool that can fix a range of problems with models. The basic version is free; the paid version is more powerful and lets you do more with the model.

Step 3: A printer. Someone get me a 3D printer.

If you don’t already have a printer available and you don’t want to use a printing service, or want to use a printer to prototype and then have your model made in another material, you’ll need to choose a printer. Keep in mind that there is a thriving community of makers and that there are lots of makerspaces that you can be a member of for a relatively small amount of money and get access to their printer (and expertise, and various cool other things) in exchange. If you decide you want to buy your own printer, have at it. Here are some considerations:

  • Price: the obvious constraint. Prices start at about $500 (unless you are up for assembling a kit) and go to infinity. Most consumer models are under $10,000. Typically you might pay $1,000-$3,000.
  • Build size: The bigger the thing you are trying to make in one piece, the higher the price you can expect to pay. What is the minimum you need?
  • Materials: Mostly the material will be plastic, ABS and PLA respectively. Should you care which? You should. PLA is corn-based and biodegradable, and less subject to warping as it cools, but is less sturdy than ABS and melts at lower temperatures. ABS builds stronger, more resilient objects but needs a heated print bed (the surface you print on) and needs to be protected from temperature fluctuations. Personally, I think ABS is superior but very finicky. Yes, you can print in chocolate and sugar, but unless you run a bakery, that probably isn’t practical. If you want to print in ceramics, or silver, or steel, prototype it in plastic and then send it off to Shapeways or someplace like it.
  • Printing methods and controls: Do you want a printer than can print wirelessly? From USB? From an app? Does it need to have a camera?
  • Support: You will need support. Whether you get it from your new makerspace buddies or a support line, you need to know before you spend the money on a printer. Check whether the seller has tech support. Check how easy it is to get replacement parts – Makerbot will sometimes actually send you files so you can print your own, which is nifty. Check the reviews of their support. Check if there are FAQs, guides, forums or groups to get more answers from. Check if there are tutorials for startup and maintenance. Often there are.
  • Speed: All 3D printing in its current form is slow, and, until we see what new technology like CLIP can do, is likely to remain so. Really, really slow. You can choose how slow of a printer you want.

Step 4: But I am making a tactile graphic, not a random 3D thingamabob, or an iPhone case.

  • LibraryLyna specializes in tactiles for the blind. Thingiverse has a section specifically for people with disabilities. These repositories and others can provide help and ideas.
  • Common sense still applies: when making an object for a blind person, the 2D rules still apply – the spacing, height contrast and overall size should be enough to be useful. Always test with users before you ask someone to rely on your tactile graphic.
  • Just because you 3D printed it, doesn’t mean it’s done. Many objects will benefit from additional information, whether that’s from an instructor or it’s embedded in the object. You can use QR codes to link to resources, you can use a Pen Friend or Touch Memo to add audio labels, you can add Braille labels, and more. There are lots of creative options there.

My final thought is that 3D printing is a great way to introduce people to one another. What I mean by that is that it is a great way to put mainstream, often easily available, technology to use for tactile graphics, and make some friends in the process. It’s a great way to introduce blind people to tactile graphics, and a great way to introduce sighted people who know 3D printing to their blind peers. Each can piggyback off the other’s expertise. It’s a great way to bring something unique and interesting that works for blind and sighted alike into a classroom. It’s a great way to meet other people who are making stuff, and to exchange knowledge, regardless of disability. There is no time like the present to learn something new.

The group of people printing 3D tactiles for the blind is small, and it is an incredible perk of my job that I have gotten to talk to and learn from so many of them. I’ll name check the work being done at the DIAGRAM Center – their webinars are well-worth a look:
http://diagramcenter.org/webinars.html#3D. The collaborators for those webinars, not just the 3D one, are a who’s who of people who are doing interesting things in tactile graphics.

If you have any questions, or if you’re curious, or, best of all, if you’re working on a tactile graphic and want feedback, do find me at [email protected].