At a 3D printing workshop on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, a seven-men crew is producing medical insoles and stents that will be used by a major hospital operator in the UAE.
The Al Bahia workshop – the first of its kind in the world – has been a hive of activity all year as the men, who have various mental disabilities, manage production.
So far, they have made 227 pieces for Mediclinic Middle East.
The programme is an initiative by Zayed Higher Organisation for People of Determination (ZHO) to help develop students' skills for high-tech jobs.
Abdulla Al Humaidan, general secretary of ZHO, said since the start of the pandemic they have been researching ways to engage their students in the tech industry.
The idea to produce the therapeutic equipment was developed with Mediclinic Middle East and HP.
The students began training in January and started production in March.
They currently produce between 20 to 25 pieces a week.
“The students are still part of the training development programme and we look forward to keeping this as sustainable jobs for them with salaries,” said Mr Al Humaidan.
When The National visited on Tuesday for the workshop's official opening, the students explained the production process.
They receive the measurements from Mediclinic with all of the data in STL files – the format for 3D printing. The data is then downloaded and entered into the server.
Powder, the primary print material, is placed in one machine and transferred to another for shaping and printing.
“It takes around five hours to print. Then the products are placed in the cooling machine,” said senior trainer Thomas Fuldner.
“Once cooled down, the students start to vacuum out the [excess] powder.”
The products are taken for further cleaning in another chamber where they are washed and dried.
Ahmad Al Hameli, a student and assistant trainer, placed his hands carefully in the big gloves that give access to the products’ washing machine.
“This is for safety,” the 29-year-old Emirati said.
With his hands inside the machine, he rotated one product to rinse it properly from the powder.
Before joining the 3D printing programme, Mr Al Hameli worked for the centre’s medical workshop that makes casts for broken limbs.
“I still work there where the casts are produced traditionally. Here we are using technology to produce similar products, so I am on both sides of the coin, kind of.”
He waited for years before landing a job in the medical department in April 2018.
“First I was learning mathematics and training on cutting wood for objects that [are] used in trains, cars and so on,” he said.
“Then I trained on electronics for three years. We had a competition to dismantle a new radio device, and put it together again until it starts working; I won first place.”
Mr Al Hameli continued in electronics for three years before moving to the mechanics workshop.
In 2017, he requested a move to the medical casts workshop.
Mr Al Humaidan said the students running the printing workshop were carefully selected.
“We did a customised assessment to evaluate the skills of students who can adapt and work on this technology,” he said.
During the summer, ZHO plans to take the programme even further.
“The second step will be for our boys to create the STL files; they will be trained to the scanning and software themselves,” Mr Al Humaidan said.
“We will go on trial in the beginning of July.”
Mr Al Humaidan said the project is important as it allows students to engage in new concepts and fields.
“To be honest, we saw an excitement and so much engagement from our students who were determined to be part of it.”