John Shinal, Special for USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO - While large businesses have begun using 3D printing and prototyping to streamline product development, tech hobbyists and other individuals are using the technology in revolutionary ways.
One of them is Bilal Ghalib, a youthful product development engineer and consultant with design-software maker Autodesk. Ghalib, whom I met at the San Francisco location of TechShop, a technology incubator space, is also the "lead instigator," as he puts it, of GEMSI, the Global Entrepreneurship and Maker Space Initiative.
Founded in 2011, GEMSI's goal is to establish so-called 'maker spaces' -- places where engineers and other geeks use 3D printing and related technologies to create cool and useful stuff across the developing world.
GEMSI's goal is to tap the creativity, technical expertise and entrepreneurial drive of young people to solve pressing social problems in their native lands, Ghalib says. That includes violence-plagued parts of North Africa and the Middle East.
In October, Ghalib was traveling through the region to visit maker spaces he and some friends had helped start in Beirut, Baghdad and other cities -- locations better known for car bombs than the all-night coding sessions that software developers call "hack-a-thons."
GEMSI welcomes all comers, including women, and its democratic leanings can set it apart in Arab communities or cities where religious fundamentalists hold sway.
In a visceral reminder of extremist-fueled violence, a series of car bombs had gone off in both Beirut and Baghdad during the week Ghalib was visiting both cities to participate in hack-a-thons.
Soon after he arrived at his uncle's house in the Iraqi capital, security forces burst in to search it for evidence of anyone or anything that might have been related to the blasts.
Fortunately for Ghalib, his clothes were covering "the giant box of scary-looking electronics," that he had brought with him from the U.S., as he later wrote in his blog.
Also inside the box was a custom prosthetic that Ghalib planned to refine using 3D prototyping technology at the maker space in Baghdad.
Six months earlier, on a previous trip to the city, he had used his iPhone to take a series of pictures of his cousin's leg, part of which had been amputated because of diabetes. The leg was painful where it inserted into a prosthetic device, Ghalib says.
Using an Autodesk software app called 123D Catch, he converted the photos into a series of 3D scans that he planed to use to design a more-comfortable insertion pad for his cousin's prosthetic.
Back in the U.S., he consulted with prosthetic makers and got key guidance from Joel Sadler, a mechanical engineer and former instructor at Stanford University whom Ghalib met at a hack-a-thon. Along with others, Sadler had invented a prosthetic knee costing only $20 that Time magazine named one of the greatest inventions of 2009.
After refining his design in the U.S., Ghalib took the device to the Baghdad maker space, where he prototyped and produced an artificial knee that he then fitted to his cousin's prosthetic.
While it hasn't completely relieved his cousin's pain, it has helped, Ghalib says.
The experience shows that 3D printing is capable of transforming the medical device industry by allowing prosthetics makers to create more comfortable products, he says.
Inexpensive 3D prototypes can be tried and fitted to an amputee's prosthetic insertion point and used to develop more customized devices, says Ghalib, who believes the result will be less pain for amputee patients.
"In the past, a lot of prosthetic design focused on aesthetics," he says. "Now, they're starting to design for fit and shape."
He also believes the medical device industry is one of many that will be transformed by 3D printing and prototyping technology.
As we spoke here, he was using one of the 3D printers at TechShop to prototype a small plastic circuit breaker that he hopes will one day reduce disruptions to medical equipment at developing-world hospitals plagued by power outages.
"This (technology) is going to positively impact any industry you can think of," Ghalib says.
For more details on Ghalib's custom prosthetic project, go to:
John Shinal has covered tech and financial markets for 15 years at Bloomberg Businessweek, San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch, Wall Street Journal Digital Network and others.