3D Printed Hearing Aids for the Developing World

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3DP4ME 3D Scanning to 3D Printed Hearing Aids Process

The war in Syria erupted into chaos in April 2011, starting in the city of Daraa, just north of the Jordanian border. The ramifications, including the massive influx of refugees to Jordan, were severe. I came to Jordan about nine months later.

Jordan is a unique and beautiful country because of the people. Jordanians are hospitable and generous, and sacrificially, they have provided a home to millions of refugees from not only Syria, but also Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, and other wartorn places.  

Jordan herself, however, has many needs.  When I first came to Amman, Jordan in January 2012, I taught English to youth and middle-aged men, with the goal of improving their employment prospects. I then began my lifetime journey of learning the Arabic language and culture, focusing on it fulltime for about three years.  

I’ve always had a desire to serve people’s real human needs, so after studying Arabic, I began connecting with people all over Jordan who were working with those with physical challenges.  During that time I met Brother Andrew, a Dutch monk, the Director of the Institute for the Deaf in Salt, Jordan, and the Chairman of World Wide Hearing (Switzerland). He had lived in the Middle East for over 40 years by that point and had helped provide thousands of hearing aids to children and adults in the Middle East, including 2000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan. I soon found an opportunity to volunteer with Brother Andrew doing projects. It was with him that I saw the amazing transformation a hearing aid could have on a person’s life, especially a child’s. And it was with him that I witnessed the intricate and laborious process that went into fashioning hearing aid molds for their clients. 

All the while I had been searching for innovative technologies that could add value to the Jordanian economy.  For motivation I started watching Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program (STVP), eCorner entrepreneur videos — probably 30-40 of them — trying to siphon all the wisdom I could from others’ start-up successes and failures. I was especially inspired by Guy Kawasaki (author, original Apple employee) and Tina Seelig (Stanford, Professor of the Practice).  Then, in early 2014, after watching a story with Not impossible Labs (Mick Ebeling) on CNN about a young boy from South Sudan who got a 3D printed arm that changed his life, I got inspired by all the possibilities 3D printing could provide!  I was sure it could be a key to impacting lives in Jordan. An idea started to blossom.

Knowing almost nothing about 3D printing at that point, I began searching for 3D printed solutions to the needs in Jordan.  I read scores of articles and watched scores of inspiring videos about innovative 3D projects. One day I stumbled upon one called, A Leg That Fits (by 3D Systems).  I was so moved by it that afterward I cold-called the 3D printing experts from the video, Gregor Ash and Mike Fanning, and asked if they would coach me in my research journey.  They agreed and have been advisors ever since!

In July 2015, I visited a 3D Systems reseller in the Netherlands to learn more in person, and in May 2016, I visited Gregor and Mike in Nova Scotia, Canada at their offices with Thinking Robot Studios. They provided me some hands-on training with 3D printing and 3D scanning technologies and shared their insights about the Additive Manufacturing (AM) industry and their vision for the future.

As I was still learning, Brother Andrew provoked me to consider bringing a new 3D printing solution for the hearing impaired in the Middle East. He explained some of the challenges and quoted this statistic from the World Health Organization (WHO):  “In developing countries, less than 3% of people who need a hearing aid are thought to have one.” (WHO report, 2013).  That meant 97% of those whose lives could be changed by a simple hearing aid did not have access, and that deeply disturbed me.  Antiquated ear molds labs, the laborious process of creating a fitted mold, and the cost were among the many reasons for the problem, and there was very being done to help solve the problem. 

I decided then and there that I wanted to use 3D printing technology to help give the gift of hearing, and Brother Andrew and I agreed to partner the effort to provide 12,000 hearing aids to Syrian refugees and low-income Jordanians over the next 5 or 6 years.

In September 2016 I met Eric Gamble, an audiologist working in Germany who had already been using the Asiga 3D printer to masterfully create the ear molds to be attached to hearing aids for those with auditory impairment. He agreed to share his expertise with me and did most of it via do-it-yourself videos that helped me get my mind around all the equipment and technology necessary to launch a similar project.

I tried to take my idea to various NGOs in Jordan, but, unfortunately, it didn’t fit into any of their goals. In the end, I realized I would have to launch a new nonprofit organization if I wanted to help meet the growing need for the hearing impaired in the Middle East, especially considering all the war-related hearing traumas.  So I did, and I have called it 3DP4ME (3D printing for me/ Middle East). Our mission is to serve real human needs with practical 3D printing.

Of course, I needed to raise money and set up a legal structure to launch the project, so I started the process of registering a nonprofit in the US. Little did I know then all the hurdles that I would have to jump through!

In order to keep learning, I became a podcast junky. I listened to nonprofit professionals to share their stories and learned from their experiences. I reached out to many nonprofit founders directly and ask for advice, and each person gave a unique perspective into the challenges and opportunities of running a nonprofit organization.  Their wisdom was gold to me.

Eventually, I recruited our board members and built a team of amazing volunteers, people with high character, committed to the mission.  We incorporated 3DP4ME in California in May 2016, and then we set out to get IRS nonprofit status. After working on the detailed IRS application and submitting it for approval, we finally got it our 501(c)3 nonprofit status in August 2017. Then things started to pick up momentum.  

After a year of trying to contact Dr. Brian Fligor, with Lantos Technologies who brought to market a new 3D Ear Scanner, I finally reached him! I knew that the revolutionary 3D Ear Scanner could provide us a phenomenal service delivery model with the mobile 3D Ear Scan, to the cloud, to real-time 3D printing of the earmold in a lab. He agreed to help us.

Jason and Dr. Brian Fligor

Lantos Technologies, Inc., is a Massachusetts-based early commercial medical device company that has developed a 3D Ear Scanning System based on intellectual property from MIT (Boston, MA). This 3D Ear Scanning System is FDA-cleared and is used to capture the unique geometry of an individual’s ears in a digital file, which is then transferred to an ear mold lab for digital manufacturing of custom ear devices, such as hearing aids, custom headphones, and custom hearing protection.

The Black “Balloon” is a single-person use conforming membrane. It is manufactured by Lantos Technologies and is at the core of the Lantos intellectual property. This membrane is placed over an endoscope/camera that is inside the handheld scanner and then placed down the ear canal, to within 4 millimeters of the eardrum, by a trained operator. Inside the handle of the handheld scanner is a solution cartridge, which is filled with an optical-filtering, water-based dye. This optical dye inflates the membrane once the membrane is placed in the ear canal. The inflating membrane conforms to all the nooks-and-crannies of the ear.

The camera is then extended and retracted inside the inflated membrane under operator control, taking pictures that map out the physical distance from the tip of the camera to the surface of the membrane with exceedingly high resolution (on the order of 10’s of microns).

The 3D Ear Scanning System software “stitches” together with the raw picture images into a 3D Mesh/point cloud, and renders this surface-map of the ear into a compact digital file in STLstl format (which is a universal file format for CAD software). Once the image-taking of the ear is complete, the camera retracts back into the handheld scanner and the membrane deflates and is withdrawn from the ear. The scanner collects over 100,000 data points, creating a 3D image of the unique geometry of the client’s ear.

With more than 18,000 scans performed to date, there have been zero adverse events; based on this track record, the process is safe and comfortable.

(Graphic Credit Dr. Brian Fligor) Step 1: Import 3D Scan
(Graphic Credit Dr. Brian Fligor) Step 2: CAD file design
(Graphic Credit Dr. Brian Fligor) Step 3: Orientation
(Graphic Credit Dr. Brian Fligor) Ready to print this hearing aid

We also were soon able to get commitments and discounts from all the major Audiology vendors:  Asiga, Detax, and Cyfex software. Then we secured a commitment from Markus Stratmann, the 3D printing Audiology expert at DETAX, to come to Jordan and help us launch our first pilot project, to show proof of concept on the new service delivery model.  We also got our first major PR breakthrough with the LA Times in November 2018, just before our first major fundraiser in Los Angeles, California. From the Jordan side, Brother Andrew introduced us to Jordanian Prince Mired Raad Zeid Al- Hussein, who is the Head of the Higher Council for the Affairs of Persons with Disabilities, and he was favorable towards our project.

Since 2016 working from Jordan to startup 3DP4ME in California has had its massive challenges, especially because of the ten-hour time difference. In addition to working normal daytime hours, I often work from 9 pm until 1 am Jordan time, to get things done.  It’s hard not being able to see people face-to-face. 

Our 3DP4ME pro-bono attorney, Theodore Lee, has worked tirelessly to help us set up a branch in Jordan. There have been many hurdles to overcome and lots of legal red tape to disentangle. Recently the Jordanian government required us to complete a two-year financial audit in California, which the state of CA only requires once you go over $2,000,000 dollars a year in donations. We had only raised $50,000, but we were still required to do it!

Presently we are in the process of submitting all our documents to the US State Department and then the Jordanian consulate in Washington D.C. Once we get all the approvals in the US, we will ship the documents to Jordan, where we will begin our official registration process here with the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Once officially registered we will rent office space, ship all our technology and equipment, and hire skilled and passionate staff. We want to train up our staff with the best coaches from our vendor partners. Then we will run a ten-day pilot in Jordan, to show the new service delivery model in a developing country, with the mobile 3D ear scan and 3D printing to provide hearing aids. Dr. Brian Fligor (Lantos Technologies consultant), Markus Stratmann (DETAX materials, 3D printing expert on ear molds), and Brother Andrew (World Wide Hearing) will partner with us in the pilot, and we will film it in order to show it to larger potential funders. We still need about $140,000 to set up and complete our pilot.

In the Jordanian market, hearing aid costs $1000 USD per device. We plan to provide hearing aids for around $350 USD while keeping a sustainable model.

Overall the years and through all the challenges, I’ve had to keep anchored in my deep-rooted desire to give the gift of hearing. I just keep thinking about all the lives we will impact, especially kids whose potential will burst open the moment they receive a hearing aid, fitted with a 3DP4ME mold.  That’s what it’s all about — changing lives and serving real human needs with practical 3D printing.

In the future, 3DP4ME plans to build a state-of-the-art 3D printing lab in Jordan where we will utilize new Additive Manufacturing (AM) technologies for additional projects to serve real human needs.

About the Author:

Jason Szolomayer

Jason directs the overall vision and mission of 3DP4ME. He has lived in Jordan for seven years. He studied Arabic full-time for the first three years and now he is proficient in speaking the language. He loves 3D printing and discovering new Additive Manufacturing (AM) applications. He graduated in 2002 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Finance from California State University, Fullerton. His professional experience includes banking and commercial real estate. He really enjoys talking with people and hearing about their life stories. In the past, Jason was an avid golfer with a 2 handicap.

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