Let us make a Braille Printer

  • Posted on: 30 March 2018
  • By: ashok

Motivation: At one stage of life, I was left without any vision in my right eye. Fortunately, the best eye surgeon could correct most of it. I have empathy for the blind.

Provocation: Recently I had meet Hugues from Lyon, France. He and his team at Human Kit, have developed a printer for the blind which is like a personal desktop printer that you and I use. I am wanting to take it further.

Price point: IDEO begins all design efforts by keeping the customer in the center of it. I do this with an artifact of figuring out the price range at which 50% of my potential customers would stop thinking about the price of a product and start looking for its features. All buy decisions are a combination of price and features.

Price point aimed at: A desktop printer frees a normal person. His readings are no longer confined to what somebody else has printed. He can print anything available on the net and he can print whatever he writes himself enriching the contents of his writings with contents created by others. The desktop printer for the blind should give them similar freedom, but at a price that is about double of desktop printers for normal people. The double price is a consequence that the volumes of production are going to be very small compared to normal printer. A good quality Canon desktop printer using ink-jet costs about Rs 10,000 or US $150. I am aiming for a desktop printer for blind at about $250.

Paper price: Also the paper for blind is special and consumes far more surface than normal printing . A ream of A4 size of 500 pages ( 60 gsm) costs about $3 in India and prints 1,000 pages if printed on both sides. Thus paper costs about 0.3 cent per page. Paper for blind is typically 11.5 inches by 11 pages and prints about 40% of the matter printed in an A4 sheet. Printing on both side is an exception. Such a paper is about 120 gsm to 160 gsm. Whatever the cost of present paper, we should aim that the print cost should be about One cent per single side print. This about 3 times the normal paper. If some ideas in my head work out in practice, we may be able to print at same cost as a 60 gsm paper.

Book Printing for Blind in advanced countries:
There are book printers for the blind dominated by a single brand.
This is an entry level printer costing about FOB US 23,000
In India we may have about ten such printers.
There is a dearth of desktop printers for the blind all over the world.
There are none in India.

Pioneering work by Hugues:
My Human Kit at Lyons, France, lead by Hugues has developed a desktop printer for blind that is estimated to be made within a budget of $ 200.
Its video can be seen here
Its development can be seen here
Github documentation is here
Some images from the video are enclosed in Annex 1.

Other videos of other braille printers:

Other resources
TRIZ is a abbreviation for Russian words that means systematic invention. Its a technique more than 50 years old and has rapidly developed after its discovery. In the western world FORD Motors is one of the largest adopters. Though it has a few adopters in India. It is relatively unknown here.If you look at the old idea of engineering as making a device to meet the needs of a function, TRIZ, works in the reverse direction. That is it asks, how can we deliver the function without the device. Though the serious practitioners of TRIZ approach it with all the rituals and pomp of the Russian Orthodox Church, we will simply adopt the core of TRIZ and ask ourselves how can we get rid of the mechanism and yet get the function.
An introduction to TRIZ is available here : https://triz-journal.com/what-is-triz/
The basis of Triz is a re-look at issued patents to understand how similar problems were solved in past and if the patterns of problem solving can be utilized to solve the present problem.
I am attaching a set of US issued patents in the field of printing for blind. Two patents have already passed into public domain and can be freely copied in their entirety. Other patents have life of them and can not be copied in the countries where they have been patented. Mostly these patents may not have been patented in India, but it is my intention that we honor their spirit and not copy them. There is no need to copy as we can generate our own ideas.

1. In a brain-storming type of collaboration,no limitations are put on solutions.
2. This is not a brain-storming type of solution.
3. I am trying to use the power of innovation, which means that all proposed part solutions should have already been tried out in other appliances and shown to work in that environment. Acceptable part-solutions should have lesser parts than what they are substituting. Lower weight and costs also.
4. Two limitations that have occurred to me are (i) No Solenoids - they are costly and (ii) No Noise. If you will watch the video of Hugues, you will hear the rapid gun fire type of noise as the printer works. Most Braille printers make that noise. That noise represents a waste of energy.The tiny bits of paper that fly when the impact is made spoil the printer-life. The working of a solenoid ensures that the noise will be made.
5. Unit of print: Every printer solution begins with the answer to the question as what is the unit of print. This is essentially an arbitrary decision. In Hugues printer, the unit of print is a single dot. In other printers, it is the line of text. In one enclosed patent it is 100 dots at one go with 100 solenoids. For our solution I am asking the unit of print be one character that is a block of 3 by 2 dots that make a character in Braille. I am aware that there are other Braille systems where an extended character is 4 by 2 dots. I am ignoring the need for such a system right now. For those knowledgeable about use of Braille in India, please point out if 4 by 2 characters need priority or can wait.
6. Size of paper: I am open to suggestions on this issue. My first thoughts are that we work with a paper that is 11.5 by 11 inches.
7. Paper : As Braillo dominates the world of Braille printing, its paper specifications carry a lot of weight. You can read about them here http://braillo.com/braille-paper/
8. These specifications are mostly useless for us as we don’t want to print a paper that will last for years and can be re-read multiple times.We are looking for a printing mechanism, along with its paper that will produce an output that will last for 5 reads.
1. Anything from 40 gsm to 160 gsm is fair game.
2. It need not be white paper - kraft paper made mostly of rice / wheat straw will also do.
3. It need not be just paper; paper-plastic laminates that are used to cover student copies/books will also do.
4. It need not be virgin paper - glazed art paper used to produce color magazines (Star-dust / Femina etc.) will also do if we are using second-hand / remaindered copies of such magazines with trimming/ sprocket holes in them. All Metro cities of India have large supplies of such paper and it can be imported in container loads from other countries. My estimate is that after processing the paper will cost about Rs 20 per kilo.
5. Will used newspapers do? We will find out.
6. I will get access to a paper specialist to help us in this regard.

Prototyping facilities: We have access to two Maker Labs where all machinery needed to build prototypes is available. One is at Vigyan Ashram, Pabal, Pune district (http://vigyanashram.com/innerpages/FabLab.aspx). The other is at Maker Asylum, Andheri Mumbai (https://www.makersasylum.com/). Hugues Lab in France will co-operate. If this is not enough, we will rope in more resources.
Money is not a problem till prototyping is finished.
We follow a plan-to-fail approach where we know that the problem we are trying to solve will not be solved in the first few attempts. We will make fresh prototypes and move on.
We have access to blind schools/ teachers for the blind and blind students. It will be easy to work with actual users and get their feedback.
Just getting a desktop braille printer into the school will not be of much use. We need to build a set of texts that can be printed out for use by students. We might get two groups active with one group identifying already available texts and pushing them into labeled folders and the other group writing fresh material. Perhaps a third group can help by using Google translate on the output of the first two groups.
A note describing what is found in the enclosed patents will follow.