How to Save the World With 3D Printing

The first 'Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon' will bring together 230 do-gooder geeks from 10 countries. Their aim: to think up practical solutions to the problems disabled people face.

Moti Milrod

Sefi Attias is what some might call a geek. At the age of 14, he built a robot to walk behind him and schlep his books to school. In the army, he spent five years as an engineer in an electrical warfare development unit. And just last month, when the lanky, bespectacled 24-year-old Israeli wanted to propose to his girlfriend Tania, a petite 25-year-old cyber intelligence consultant – he did it with the help of a 22-person team and a quad copter skywriting “Marry Me!” in the sky.

The engagement ring was – of course – 3D printed.

But besides Tania, what Attias is really excited about these days is finding ways to make things that matter. Like, for example, a new kind of cushion to help protect someone who sits in wheelchairs all day long from pressure sores, or an affordable prosthetic hand for a growing 9-year-old boy who does not have any of his left hand fingers but really wants to play basketball, or a new form of crutches for someone who wants to walk and comfortably carry a cup of water at the same time.

Attias, who sort of prefers the term “maker” to “geek,” has not dreamed up these projects alone, nor is he planning on creating them by himself. He is part of a big international community of inventors who like to tinker and create new things by hand – and are planning a major gathering next week (June 29-July 1) in Israel for a marathon 72-hour “Tikkun Olam Make-a-thon.”

The idea behind TOM, (tomisrael.org) as this hackathon-like event for makers who also happen to be do-gooders is being billed, is for all these engineers, designers, artists, computer scientists, robotics enthusiasts and others who want to do “Tikun Olam” – Hebrew for “repairing the world” – to team up with so-called “need-knowers” and get on with it.

Who are “need-knowers?” These, explains Attias, are the folks who know best what is needed to make life for a disabled person better – either because they themselves or someone close to them is disabled, or because they are doctors, therapists or others who work on a daily basis with those people.

“Nothing about us, without us,” says Attias, spouting one of TOM’s favorite mottos. “We don’t want to tell people what they need, we believe need-knowers themselves have to be an integral part of the solution.”

Over 230 “makers” from 10 countries around the world applied to “TOM,” along with 100 “need-knowers” who sent in challenges they hoped would be chosen as projects. Of these, 80 participants were chosen, who were then split into teams to work on the 13 challenges decided upon.

The event is being organized and supported by two organizations that aim to advance Israeli or Jewish projects to better humanity – the Reut Institute’s Cross Lab Network (XLN), and the Schusterman Philanthropic Network’s Connection Points. XLN is a network of 3D printing labs around the country, and a meeting point for “makers” co-founded by Attias, who now serves as CTO there. And two Schusterman fellows, or ROI-ers, as they are known – Josh Gottesman and Arnon Zamir, who work at Reut – have been entrusted to lead TOM.  

The U.S. 3D tech company Stratasys – which recently merged with Objet, an Israeli maker and innovator of 3D technology that has helped turn this country into leader in 3D printing – is also supporting TOM. So are numerous other bodies including Intel, Google, Terra Ventures, Indiegogo, Milbat – an NGO that works with the disabled, and the ALYN children’s hospital in Jerusalem.

At the invitation of top Israeli industrialist Stef Wertheimer, the event is to take place in a 500-square-meter space at his industrial park in Nazareth, which will be filled with the kind of equipment favored by the “maker” do-it-yourself movement; from 3D printers, laser cutters and computer numerical control machines to wood, metal and plastic molds. A 10-strong technical back-up team will be on hand – and lots of free coffee.

“What we are doing is putting talented people from different fields together, closing the door, giving them tools and also offering prize incentives – all to encourage them to create for the good of society,” says Attias. “The number and quality of applicants sort of shocked us, but the truth is it’s clear how much immediate satisfaction one can get by being part of this. A lot of people are looking for ways to harness technology and know-how to influence and help out.”

Besides a few inspirational talks, breaks for lunch and dinner and a yoga class on the second morning, the idea, stresses Attias, is for everyone to be working intensively.

And, while each project to be worked on at TOM will focus on a specific challenge for a specific person, the hope is that at the end of the three days open source, affordable prototypes will be made available – that is, anyone, anywhere in world, will be able to tweak and use whatever comes out of TOM as solutions to their own needs.

The Reut institute has also announced that they see TOM as a pilot – and that they plan to establish a technology innovation center for the betterment of society (to be called C-IDEA, the Center for Inclusive Design and Extreme Affordability” in the make-a-thon’s wake.

“Help one, help many,” says Attias, pulling yet another favorite TOM motto out of his hat. And then, unable to resist just one more: “Seventy two hours to make a better world,’” he adds, wrapping it up. “That might actually be our best motto.”