Open-sourcing assistive devices through makeathons: Melissa Fuller

Melissa Fuller is an Australian-based social designer and entrepreneur. As an advocate for a sustainable and ethical future, Mel is informed and encouraged by the principles of the next industrial revolution. A catalyst for a new economy, her focus is on the intersection of design and manufacturing, and how that can create greater social equality in society.

Mel is energetic, motivated, and has founded 3 socially progressive organizations, including Three Farm, Makers Place, and AbilityMate. After high school Mel had no idea what she would do for work until she stumbled across a part time job in a factory cutting posters and sweeping floors. Mel got really good at cutting posters and sweeping floors which prompted her manager to train her in production, operating the large format printers and fabrication equipment. By 26, Mel was the General Manager, coordinating the delivery of high quality advertising graphics for the biggest and most prestigious retail, fragrance and cosmetic companies in the world.  However, she was concerned about the negative environmental affect her work was having, and so she decided to take her passion for printing into the third dimension, and founded Three Farm to raise awareness about the power of CAD and 3D printing for social good.  Since then, Mel has founded Makers Place and AbilityMate, which creates open-source designs for 3D printed assistive devices.

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Melissa Fuller with an open-source robot.

Please tell us about your background and your journey from working in advertising to becoming a social entrepreneur and founder of AbilityMate.

One day while working at the printing factory, I started paying attention—I had some sort of moral awakening and realized the negative impact my work was having on society and the environment. The advertising products we were producing were made from plastic and toxic solvent inks and would end up in landfill when an advertising campaign had ended. I felt enough of an urge to start thinking about what I would do next and how I could undo some of the damage caused.

A short time after that, I became aware of 3D printing. As it does for most people, 3D printing really blew my mind! To think that something can be made layer by layer from a digital file reminded me of 2D printing except it was 3D. Very quickly I became obsessed with the technology and started finding amazing case studies of people using 3D printing for good. In the early days of Mel’s new-found passion, case studies like 3D printed prosthetic limbs, 3D printing materials made from waste, and people fixing broken stuff is what impressed me the most. So much so that my two friends, Yasmin Smith and Grace Turtle, and I co-founded Three Farm. 

Three Farm was a network of design and technology educators raising awareness and building people’s capacity in the areas of CAD design, 3D printing, and social good. Three Farm had a major focus on catalyzing change through design and technology and helping people imagine the positive potentials of digital fabrication technology. We spent the next 2 years travelling the U.S., researching makerspaces and travelling to regional and remote communities of Australia teaching at schools, libraries, and community centers.

Three Farm needed a headquarters for its network. After receiving an accommodation grant through Renew Australia, we turned an empty and derelict restaurant that had been unoccupied for over 7 years into a vibrant and welcoming Maker’s Place. And that’s what we decided to call the project, Makers Place Inc.

Makers Place Inc. is a shared community facility that provides communities with access to tools and equipment required for invention. Our goal was to lower the barrier of entry to design and technology. Members can fix, make, hack, and invent collaboratively in an environment where sharing knowledge is celebrated and common. My cofounders and I opened Makers Place in 2014 on a shoestring budget of $2000. Now the association has a core group of members who self-fund, govern, and participate in growing and shaping the organization.

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Cofounders Melissa Fuller, Grace Turtle, and Yasmin Smith celebrating the launch of Makers Place Inc.

A few months after Makers Place opened, I realized that the members were looking for projects. After the twentieth Yoda head had been 3D printed, I knew that I needed to find some projects that the members would enjoy making, while actually contributing to society. I set out on a journey to find Makers Place members some problems to solve. That’s when I was introduced to Johan duPlessis. Johan is an entrepreneur turned carer for people with disabilities. A lot of the parents of the children he looked after were telling him about the challenges they face when acquiring assistive devices for their kids. Long wait times, expensive products and sometimes even profiteering are the symptoms of an industry that needs some help. Johan went on his own mission to find a way to make this better. When Johan and I met there was a synergy that was clear as day. I needed projects for my members and Johan needed devices for his friends. We decided to experiment by holding an event to bring together makers and people with disabilities. Something really special happened that day, a story that Johan and I love to tell: A young lady named Marusha could not use her electric wheelchair due to spasms in her hands. She was quoted $1000 for a modification and had been waiting 6 months. She came to Makers Place, and within 3 hours a designer had worked with her to 3D print a new controller tailor-made for her finger. We then 3D printed the new design for a material cost of just 37 cents. Repeat - 3 hours and 37 cents!

In that moment we knew something special had happened. We all had tears in our eyes as she drove around for the first time in months, wearing a huge smile. We shared this design online and 3 months later it was modified and 3D printed for Rick, a man who hadn't driven his wheelchair independently for 8 years! Imagine if we can do the same for ALL assistive devices—that is the future AbilityMate is working toward.

Customized joystick toggle that was 3D printed in just 3 hours and cost only 37 cents in materials.

AbilityMate has an interesting business model (make-a-thons and open source designs). Could you explain this model and how it helps solve the current problems with assistive devices?

The World Health Organization estimates that today, there are 1 billion people with a disability worldwide and only 1 in 10 people in need have access to assistive technology. With an aging global population and a rise in non-communicable diseases, more than 2 billion people will need at least 1 assistive product by 2050.  Assistive technology enables people to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives, and to participate in education, the labor market and civic life. Assistive technology reduces the need for formal health and support services, long-term care and the work of caregivers. Without assistive technology, people are often excluded, isolated, and locked into poverty, thereby increasing the impact of disease and disability on a person, their family, and society.

AbilityMate is an open source community inventing products for an inclusive society. We believe every person with a disability should have access to the assistive devices they need. That is why AbilityMate is creating a global commons of open source designs. For the last year the team has been adding to and refining this collection through Make-a-Thon events where teams of human centered designers, carers, occupational therapists, and people with disabilities have co-created dozens of products specific to a person's needs.

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Marsh Pride, 19 years old with cerebal palsy, and proud new owner and co-creator of the Joystick Toggle!

AbilityMate is leading the assistive technology industry into the next industrial revolution by establishing localized makerspaces where products can be produced by people with disabilities. These makers are trained on technologies such as 3D printing, 3D scanning, electronics, and programming.

AbilityMate’s guiding principles are to lower costs, heighten awareness, and increase the availability of assistive technology by creating a global commons of designs and democratizing the manufacturing of assistive technology. We believe Makers can earn money by using their skills “for good,” designing and making stuff that actually matters and makes a difference in someone’s life. 

Tell us about the AbilityMate make-a-thons and the human-centered design process participants in the make-a-thons follow.

A Make-a-Thon is a “marathon” event whereby AbilityMate facilitates the invention of devices used by people with disabilities. We do this by connecting people with disabilities with designers and makers. Together they co-create designs that are rapidly prototyped and 3D printed at the event.

AbilityMate cofounder Johan DuPlessis and AbilityMate engineer Ade Ogunniyi making a button.

All inventions born at AbilityMate Make-a-Thons are open-sourced and featured as solutions available for purchase on AbilityMate’s website, in turn inspiring innovation in the accessibility sector and making much-needed products available—and affordable— to people with disabilities.

Make-a-Thons are a fun hands-on approach to building people's capacity in the areas of

  • Empathy, Etiquette & Inclusivity
  • Design Thinking
  • Rapid Prototyping 
  • Design & Technology

Teams are set challenges but are encouraged to go with the flow if an out of the blue observation takes place. The aim is to ensure participants see the fruits of their impact by the end of the event.

The one rule at AbilityMate Make-a-Thons is that no one is allowed to make a design decision without consulting the end user first. This rule avoids the unnecessary occurrence of inventing something that doesn't fulfil a need.

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AbilityMate make-a-thon process flow.

Many of the designers at your make-a-thons use Autodesk Fusion 360.  Please tell us how they leverage this tool and how it has been beneficial in designing assistive devices. 

Designers at AbilityMate use Fusion 360 because it’s an easy-to-learn software; new members can pick it up quickly. Having designers work across the same software saves a lot of headache. Fusion 360 has powerful features like change parameters, which lets AbilityMate designers very quickly customize devices such as joystick toggles. Fusion 360’s shareable links allow the public to see and download their own copy of the device, which allows for easy online viewing of results. We’re continuously learning new features in the software as it becomes an integral part of delivering assistive tech to those who need it.

3D printed joystick toggle created in Fusion 360.

What are your plans for the future of AbilityMate?  Where do you hope the company will be in 5 years? 10 years? 

The future for AbilityMate is bright! AbilityMate is not just a supplier of assistive technology; we advocate for a sustainable and ethical future that is informed and encouraged by the principles of the next industrial revolution.

AbilityMate is catalyzing a new economy and blurring the lines between designers, makers, and consumers, with people who have disabilities.

Our human-centered approach is showing thought leadership in a sector that is currently being disrupted by the NDIS—the biggest Australian health reform since Medicare. Just like Autodesk, the AbilityMate community believes that cooperation has overtaken competition, and that human intention, empowered by technology, is reshaping everything. In 5 years AbilityMate will have localized makerspaces creating assistive tech globally.  Who knows, in 10 years these makerspaces might be producing open-source wheelchairs and exoskeletons!

What advice would you give to other young entrepreneurs looking to start a business with a social impact?

Rethink the role humans will play in the future and brush up on the skills that will help you thrive in the new economy. Skills in design and problem-solving will be absolutely key! 

Find a talented team, don't just find people who can do the job well, find people you love being around. Create an organization that lets you be your whole self, where colleagues can be open and honest with each other. Hierarchy is stifling and unnecessary and with the correct processes in place, organizations can achieve major impact by empowering people.

Remember, you don't always have to start your own thing, try being an intrapreneur to create impact by changing an organization from within. Or join us—we’d love to hear from you!

Whatever you do, fail and learn as fast as you can.  Be brave and back yourself, then others will too!

Want to help people in your community? Get up and running with Fusion 360 so you can help create assistive devices.