A 3D printer made this Braille map

A portable and durable 3D-printed tactile map with Braille. (Credit: Cameron Bowman)

Engineers are 3D printing plastic Braille maps to help blind and visually impaired people navigate a vocational training center.

Howon Lee, an assistant professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University, says the maps are a form of GPS for those who use them. Lee collaborated on the project with Jason Kim, a mechanical engineering student.

Jason Kim and Howon Lee
Jason Kim and Howon Lee with a 3D-printed Braille map. (Credit: Cameron Bowman)

The new maps will replace the center’s clunky, old wooden maps that have a few Braille labels on walls.

Lee says he got the idea of making 3D maps after visiting the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. The institute created educational materials for small children with a 3D printer, and he was impressed.

A 3D printer, which is very similar to an inkjet printer, uses computer-aided design software. The technology was developed in the 1980s, but advancements have accelerated in the last five years.

“Instead of printing letters on top of a 2-dimensional sheet, you just do this over and over again, layer upon layer, until you have a final 3-dimensional product,” Lee explains.

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Kim says he approached Lee last spring, looking for a summer project that would help the community. “He told me about this opportunity, and I thought it was perfect.”

Neither Kim or Lee knew anything about Braille, so they had a steep learning curve.

They visited the center several times to get feedback from faculty and students. They finished designing the map near the end of last summer.

“One of the things we saw with conventional Braille printed on paper is that it doesn’t last long,” Lee says.

The new maps are a little larger than a small computer tablet. They’re in a binder so students can easily carry them for reference. They also have a legend, or guide, in Braille, a feature missing from prior maps. The legend helps limit the amount of map training needed.

Lee says there’s only one copy of the maps so far and the goal is to lower map-making costs so every student at the training center gets a map on day one.

The idea is to “give freedom, extended freedom, to navigate and go from one place to another without worrying too much,” he says.

Source: Rutgers University