Immunization Beads Garner Top Prize in 3D Printers for Peace Contest

John Van Tuyl's VaxBeads, designed to serve as a vaccination record for children in the developing world, won first prize in the 3D Printers for Peace contest.
John Van Tuyl's VaxBeads, designed to serve as a vaccination record for children in the developing world, won first prize in the 3D Printers for Peace contest.

A brightly colored innovation to help families and doctors keep track of childhood vaccine records in the developing world has won the 3D Printers for Peace Contest.

The contest was organized last spring by Michigan Technological University’s Joshua Pearce, who had become alarmed that 3D printing was known primarily as a technology for making homemade guns. “We wanted to celebrate designs that will make lives better, not snuff them out,” said Pearce, a 3D printing aficionado and an associate professor of materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering.

The 3D Printers for Peace contest did just that, by underscoring the power of the new technology to make the world a better place, according to Pearce. “I’m really happy with the diversity of designs,” he said. “They showcase the ability of the 3D printing community to benefit humanity.”

The first-place entry, VaxBeads, was submitted by John Van Tuyl of Hamilton, Ontario. The plastic blocks act as an immunization record. Each color and shape represents a vaccine, and the blocks can be printed with a child’s initials, date of birth and an identifying number. Van Tuyl receives the top prize, an Open-source Series 1 3-D Printer donated by Type A Machines.

A master’s student in mechanical engineering at McMaster University, Van Tuyl has a biomedical background, which prompted him to focus on improving immunization rates in the developing world. “We have the capacity to immunize against many diseases, but it’s not getting accomplished,” he said. Putting easily interpreted medical records into the hands of the people could help, he thought. So he developed VaxBeads, which can be strung into a necklace to represent a person’s immunization record. “They are more permanent than paper, and I thought families would be more likely to save the beads than standard vaccination cards.”

The judges were impressed with the design’s originality and practicality. “VaxBeads are a novel idea; no one has done anything like that yet,” said Pearce. “John demonstrated the ability of 3D printing to address a real need in the developing world. You could print beads fast enough to hand to children, and if they were to wear the necklace to the doctor’s office, it would be quick and easy to identify missing vaccinations.”

Matthew Courchaine, who took second place in the contest, is working on a double major in computer and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. He will receive a MOST version of the RepRap Prusa Mendel open-source 3D printer kit for his entry, a solar-powered water purification cone. It is designed for use during disasters or in regions where clean water is a precious commodity. “As long as you have some sunlight and a source of water, it will work,” Pearce said.

Courchaine, of Crystal Falls, has been hooked on 3D printers since he built one himself and started using it to make household items, knick-knacks and the like. “When I saw Dr. Pearce’s description of the contest, I completely agreed with his reasoning. Often times, I will get asked jokingly to print someone a gun, but I think that the 3D printing revolution is a great thing and has endless possibilities.”

Several similar products are already on the market. “The challenge was to recreate the technology so that it can cheaply be produced using 3D printing,” Courchaine said.

The third prize, a MatterHackers sampler pack of filament, was awarded to Aaron Meidinger for his design of a braille tablet, which could let a sighted person leave short notes to a blind person, or vice versa. Plastic tiles with letters in both braille and the alphabet can be arranged on a platform reminiscent of Scrabble. “It’s simple, easy to make, and definitely would work,” said Pearce.

Meidinger, a mechanical engineering major at Arizona State University, started thinking about language after taking a sign language class in high school. “Braille is to the blind as sign language is to the deaf, and braille is certainly not intuitive for a sighted person,” he said. “There are extremely expensive tools out there that aim to create braille on a computerized tablet, but I wanted to design something that would be simple and educational for a sighted person to use, and could be useful in many ways for non-verbal communication for the blind. Even if you can’t write braille, you can arrange tiles to spell out what you need to.”

Pearce expressed his thanks to all the 3D Printers for Peace participants.  “All the open-source entries demonstrated the technical ability and promise of low-cost 3D printers to provide for humanity’s needs and advance the cause of peace.”

All the entries are posted on, which now has 146,000 open-source designs that can be downloaded for free and printed by anyone with a 3D printer.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.