In the past, scaling and reproducing fossils was cost prohibitive and was in the domain of artists. Now 3D printers and 3D scanners are affordable, which means that paleontologists can now recreate dinosaurs.
In the video below, Professor Kenneth Lacovara says ”the best thing you could do in science is to falsify your hypothesis.” 3D digital technology allows scientists to “open-source” their empirical data, including original discoveries like fossils. Now, instead of asking colleagues to fly across the globe to help validate new findings, a scientist can just send a digital file and the finding can be 3D printed at the other end.
Scanning fossils has further application with the use of the 3D printer, of course. Holding the 1/10 scale leg bone of a dinosaur in the palm of his hand, Lacovara explained that uses in the classroom present attractive prospects, where examination of real specimens is hardly practical. The scans can also fill in the blanks of broken or incomplete bones by replicating data from a similar part. Of course, printing all of the specimens is still fairly expensive, so for now, they’re only printing fossils from which they hope to learn some new piece of information. The process is simple: Dr. Lacovara, and his students set a bone on a table, or, if size is less of a factor, on a small rotating pedestal. The scanner used in his lab is a $3,000 NextEngine scanner, which uses simple proprietary software to scan around 1 million points on a three-dimensional object in a few minutes. It is plugged into a Windows computer. The scanning produces an STL file, commonly used in CAD. The STL file is sent to another computer, and this time, it’s the one that is attached to the Dimension Elite 3D Printer which is housed in the Engineering Department, where the actual “printing” of the bone takes place. The complete process can take just a few hours. The printer uses fused deposit modeling, a 3D imaging and printing process developed in the 1980s and commercialized in the 1990s. It takes the STL file and essentially slices it into layers, automatically generating a disposable, breakaway support structure if needed. The printing material, a polymer plastic, is laid down in those corresponding layers, eventually completing the finished object. The result is a highly faithful and exact scale model of the object as originally scanned at a given scale. While the process is still somewhat expensive, it leads to the possibility — previously unthinkable — of endless duplication, and endless faithful reproductions.