Here’s a story of weaving from real to digital 3D and back again, of past and future coming together via a web of experts around the globe. It’s a story of creating an exact replica of a curated artifact and transporting this piece of history from a South American desert to a museum on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall, all without touching it or risking damage.
Imagine the sight when a construction crew exposed a few dusty bones in Chile’s Atacama Desert as they cleared ground to widen the Pan-American Highway. It was 2010, and by the time paleontologists had completely excavated the site, they’d discovered more than 40 whale fossils, believed to be 6 to 9 million years old. The site was called Cerro Ballena, or “whale hill.”
Smithsonian Institute paleontologist Dr. Nick Pyenson and his South American colleagues had to work quickly. Vibrations from the adjacent highway threatened the exposed fossils, not to mention the imminent layer of pavement that would soon blanket the site. Thus, it was vital that he and the team quickly unearth and document as many specimens as possible.
So he enlisted the help of Smithsonian X 3D’s Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo, who quickly made the trip to Chile. Vince and Adam worked night and day for five days to 3D scan as many fossils as possible and capture essential data about the site before the fossils were moved. In this respect they were able to forever preserve a site that is no longer in existence, so that experts and novices alike can always go back to the original discovery. You can see some of the 3D models here.
But it would have been a shame to stop there. After all, the beauty of 3D printing is that you can rebuild exact replicas anytime, anywhere. So 3D Systems volunteered to 3D print one of the most complete Cerro Ballena fossils — whale fossil MPC 677 — for display in the National Museum of Natural History. This project was only a small part of our multi-year agreement with the Smithsonian Institution to provide 3D printing services and support their organization-wide effort to strengthen collections and exhibit accessibility.
Once finished, the replica of MPC 677 would be the largest 3D printed fossil in the world. At the same time, we hoped it would be a material reminder of just how useful 3D printing can be in archival, research, and historical applications. Think about it: If you can locally reproduce artifacts, then you can enable hands-on learning for museum visitors, provide new outreach opportunities for students in remote locations, and allow researchers to study fossils from around the world.
Preparing something that massive for 3D printing is no simple task. It required some of our company’s brightest minds, a little learning on the job, a lot of patience, and a couple of crossed fingers. We decided early that the best way to create the fossil, for portability and printability, was to divide it into a series of tiles and assemble the tiles to create the final piece. Using Geomagic Studio to manipulate the scan data, we started by scaling down the model to about 60 percent of its original size. This prehistoric mammal was a rorqual whale, the largest group of baleen whales, which also includes today’s humpback, fin, and blue whales. So we had do bring it down in size to accommodate the space.
Next, we prepared the data — the mesh contained about 30 million polygons — and then sectioned it into 40 tiles for printing. The final size for the completed fossil was to be approximately 20 feet by 8 feet.
The first effort of its kind, the project took time in the early stages. We had to design the tiles to fit together; find a material that was strong, light, and resistant to warping; and make sure the junctions were as uniform as possible. Finally, in early 2014 we sent the final STL files to our Seattle production facility for printing in one of our powder bed 3D printers.
The printing took a month or so — printing one or two tiles per day — and the next step was to put the puzzle together. So we shipped all 40 tiles to Virginia, where the scenic experts at 3rd Dimension transformed the white 3D prints into fossilized bone and sand.
Pretty amazing how far some joint compound, paint, adhesive, and faux sand can go in the right hands. Not only did they make it look authentic, they also mounted it on a steel frame and prepared it for moving and installation.
On May 22, 2014, Capital Museum Exhibits’ installers opened the truck to reveal the finished fossil. The Smithsonian staff was all grins — giddy even — like they’d discovered the fossil all over again. People from all over the museum came to see the installation; this event was the talk of the day. After more than a year, and a long journey into the digital word, the largest 3D printed fossil went up on the wall of the Q?rius theater in the National Museum of Natural History.
Imagine a child’s face — amazed like those who first discovered Cerro Ballena — when she sees the 3D-printed fossil for the first time. Expressions like it could pop up around the globe as museums print their own fossils in house, making exhibits like this both interactive and boundless in availability.
I’m proud to be a part of something that produces such happiness, not limited to paleontologists or engineers but inclusive of everyone. For all the strides in manufacturing that 3D printing is making, we can’t forget about the true wonder it drums up in us all. This true facsimile of a prehistoric whale, hanging on a wall in Washington, D.C., while the original lay in storage in Chile, is a treasure from the past in two places at once.