March 2018 3DPrint.com
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 5% of the world’s population is affected by disabling hearing loss. In the US alone, it is estimated that 35 million people have some level of hearing loss, but only 28% of that population has a hearing aid. Many people in the developed world have expressed that they avoid using a hearing aid because of how they look, the difficulty there is in tuning them, and frustration with time and money spent buying and replacing batteries. These frustrations have led an Australian research team to develop a device called Facett which should help to eliminate some of the barriers that people face when deciding whether or not to use a hearing aid, as Elaine Saunders, Adjunct Professor at Swinburne University of Technology and co-developer of the device, explained:
“This is a huge leap in progress for the four million Australians suffering hearing loss, many of whom aren’t using hearing aids because of appearance, repeated and frustrating visits to suppliers for hearing aid tuning and the inconvenience and complexity of changing batteries. Facett is a true collaboration between science and design. It’s part of a digital health system that empowers people to self-manage their hearing experience.”
Swinburne Vice Chancellor Linda Kristjanson at the launch of Facett with co-developer Adjunct Professor Elaine Saunders
The self-management comes in the form of a ‘core’ that will allow a wearer to make adjustments to their hearing aid using a tablet, computer, or smartphone, rather than having to visit an audiologist. The bi-component device consists of this programmable core and a module that contains the rechargeable batteries that power it. An essential part of developing this world’s first technology was in the development of a low-power, wireless control system that would create the necessary communication between the hearing aid itself and whichever device the user wishes to use to operate it. That portion of the design was created early on as part of the research of Swinburne PhD candidate Jonathon Miegel, and 3D printing was essential for its ability to cheaply and quickly allow him to prototype and redesign, as he described:
“I provided multiple designs for the modular connections, each of which provided different features aimed at improving the strength of the connection between modules without making the hearing aid too difficult to manipulate. The design and prototyping process was carried out in rapid iterations using a combination of computer-aided design software and various types of 3D printing.”
This device should go a long way toward eliminating the barriers to using a hearing aid for those who could benefit from the technology, as Swinburne continues to devote resources to advances. 3D printing has enabled many innovations in hearing aid technology, in both prototyping and production, and this latest device serves as another example of the speed and efficiency possible to benefit those with hearing loss, as the bulk of the hearing aid industry has turned to additive manufacturing.