Printing Interpretation in 3 Dimensions

Technology constantly changes how we view the world.  Think about it for a few minutes.  What has changed in your life since being in middle school?  At 33 years of age A LOT has changed in my life.  Cell phones are now portable and more powerful than our home computer growing up.  I mean, my watch can now make phone calls!  One other aspect of technology that is changing how we interpret at our museum, 3D printing and scanning.  We can now share SO MUCH natural history of the Black Belt with the public in both physical and digital form that every day staff time is devoted to learning about this remarkable technology.  Our argument is, IF you can afford it, 3D technology has remarkable benefits to any institution.

3D scan of herbivore bone

Our small 3D laser scanner creating a digital file of a dinosaur bone fragment.

Right now you may have two question; 1.) What is 3D printing/scanning?  2.) How is any of this fancy technology helpful to learning about our shared natural and cultural history?  First off, what am I talking about?  Three Dimensional printing involves melting a material, usually plastic or resin, then letting it harden into a object file on a computer.  You can literally print anything as long as you have the object file.  If you do not, then an individual can 3D scan the desire object in order to create a digital file.  You can do this a variety of ways with the cheapest being FREE photogrammetry software available for the cell phone or tablet you are reading this blog post on right now or on a handheld laser scanning device costing $30,000.  Your only limitations with this technology, is your print space, computer with software and your budget.

How do we use plastic, lasers and heat to teach about nature?  Aren’t we trying to

miniraptor black skull

Deinonychus skull we are printing from a file found online.  This was our first venture into printing skulls with our extrusion printer.

REMOVE plastic from the environment?  True, pollution is a problem we need to deal with on massive scale.  However, I got a question for you reading this post.  Has anyone here given a 90 million year old fossil to a class only to have one student use it for a table engraving tool hard enough to break the tip of this rare claw?  I have.  THAT is a great conversation to have with the collection manager when you get back to work.  Yup…MOVING ON…if I had used a 3D scanned and printed dinosaur claw and the student did the same thing, a priceless object would not have been damaged.  Alone, that is one great advantage to 3D printing.  It allows sensitive objects in your collection to be viewed/handled by the public while protecting the original for scientific study.  We are using printed copies more and more in order to protect our collection.  I will say we do use some original fossils or artifacts of common items in order to give participants the opportunity to feel the past in their hands.  Using 3D printers/scanners you can offer programs where students can create object files then print out those objects to take home.  Those same scans can be posted online to social media or 3D file sharing sites allowing people to print out copies of your artifacts at home.  The Smithsonian has an entire department dedicated to digitizing their ENTIRE collection, then putting those objects online for you to print out at home.  Cool right! You can view their work here:  So here we are, using plastic to teach about fossilized bones millions of years old.  Not too bad for heating up plastic…and lasers!

Three dimensional printing and scanning technology is a great way to augment interpretation of your site.  It can be a great way to protect sensitive objects, create items for study or engage community members in many new exciting ways.  While it can’t replace original objects or the people needed to run the machines, it can be an exciting way to engage people about the places that we hold next to our hearts.

If you want to learn more about 3D printing/scanning and some of the costs associated with it, please feel free to shoot me an email; I will be more than happy to discuss it all with you.

vert printing

Printing of a mosasaur vertebrae found about 5 miles from campus during a special event.

Categories: General, Interpretation tools, Social media, Technology | Leave a comment

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