3D Printing

3D printing, also known as ‘additive manufacturing’, is a process of making three-dimensional objects from a digital model. This 3D object is made by laying down multiple layers of material. It is useful in almost any field, including Geology and Palaeontology.  (Excell, Nathan, 2010)
3d plane

Creating a 3D object using additive manufacturing involves three stages. First, the 3D printer will take a virtual blueprint of the object it wants to reproduce. This is done either using computer aided design (CAD) or animation modelling software. Digital cross sections are then made to use as a guideline for printing. Then, a binding material is placed on the build bed or platform until the ‘binder layering is complete’.

The next stage is the printing stage. The machine reads the design and yet again successive layers are put down. This can either be of powder, liquid or sheet material. These layers are the same as the virtual cross sections and are fused together to create the final shape. Typical layer thickness is around 100 micrometres and printing can take from several hours to several days, depending on size and complexity of the model.

The final stage is not always needed in 3D printing. It involves either enlarging some areas of the object to make them easier to observe, or using other materials to construct certain parts. Supports are also sometimes used if there are overhanging features, and need to be removed at this stage.

Not only can 3D printing be used in industries such as jewellery, footwear, architecture and civil engineering, it can be used in palaeontology. For example, Sergio Azevedo, a Brazilian palaeontologist, discovered the fossilised bones of an unknown animal in São Paulo. He was unsure as to how much of the animal he had so, instead of taking a hammer and possibly damaging the rest of the fossil, he used a portable CT scanner to determine the orientation of the fossil in the ground. A large chunk of rock containing the specimen was then taken back to a lab, probed with a more power scanner and a 3D model was printed out in resin. This gave him and his team safe access to the internal structure of the specimen, not usually accessible in conventional palaeontological techniques. The fossil turned out to be a new species of crocodile that went extinct 75 million years ago. Below is an image of the scan of the fossil that Sergio Azevedo excavated. (Hooper, 2013)


With a CT scanner, which uses X-rays, you don’t even need to see the object with your own eyes. Fossils can be scanned while still encased in rock. The image is subjected to “virtual preparation” – software processing that digitally removes the surrounding rock. This could cut a palaeontologist’s work in the field down greatly, as they wouldn’t even have to fully excavate the fossil.

Also, laser scanners can capture the surface details of delicate fossils in the field in 3D before they are excavated to provide an in situ record of a fossil or a site before it is disturbed.

Furthermore, 3D printing would be an invaluable tool for those studying Palaeontology and similar courses. If there was a 3D printer in university labs, accurate digital replicas can be made of the rare and inaccessible specimens that make up the fossil collections in museums.

“We are developing several research lines in palaeontology using CT and surface 3D scanning,” says Azevedo. “These include the nervous system and biomechanics of crocodiles, dinosaurs and other vertebrate fossils.”


As well as being able to virtually extract fossils using 3D scanning and printing, behavioural patterns of extinct animals can be explored. Palaeontologist Professor Kenneth Lacovara from Drexel University in Philadelphia and mechanical engineer James Tangorra have been replicating dinosaur bones to see how they moved and behaved. Lacovara works on large sauropods, so manipulating their vast fossils is almost impossible. Instead, he uses scaled down model replicas to test theories of their movement. Even though fossil bones are compressed and distorted over millions of years, the 3D scanner restores them to their original shapes and proportions. Robotic models can then be 3D printed, complete with artificial tendons and muscles to show how these beasts would have moved.

Even though 3D printing seems the way forward and can be very useful indeed, there are some disadvantages. As mentioned, 3D printers use powdered resin, plaster or liquid polymers. These materials are not very strong, so there are a lot of size limitations when creating 3D replicas. Larger objects are often impractical to make due to the amount of time it would take the printer to create.

The surface finish of a 3D printed object is rough and ribbed; this is because of the plastic beads or powder particles that are stacked on top of each other during printing. This gives the end product an unfinished look.

On top of these inconveniences, 3D printers themselves are rather expensive. On average, a 3D printer can approximately cost £3250 and can go as high as £32500 for higher end models. That price does not include the cost of accessories and resins or other operational materials. (Gibson, Rosen, Stucker, 2009)


Even though 3D printing has been around for decades, it is still very far away from being distributed to the mass market. It seems, however, that the cost of 3D printers is dropping, so maybe 3D printers will become a household item in the future. 3D printing can be useful for all fields of work, especially in palaeontology. Staples are planning on opening large city locations in the Netherlands and Belgium, offering 3D printing to the masses. (Lepitak, 2013) This will be the first time a retailer sells this service to the public. If it is a successful venture, it is very possible that it will be adopted by competitors around the world. However, this may bring up further problems, such as infringement on copyright (if people print off replicas of branded products). This doesn’t seem like too much of an issue for those wanting to make replicas of fossils though.

Additive Manufacturing is incredibly useful from a geological perspective; it can allow someone to know the orientation, nature and size of a fossil without even having to dig it out of the ground. It can allow scientists to have a closer look at some of the more intricate details of specimens. If the specimen is small, the 3D replica can be blown up to make observations easier to make and if the specimen is large, it can be shrunk down to a more manageable size. Misinterpretations of bones might be a thing of the past as a 3D printer can return the fossils to their original dimensions. Furthermore, 3D printers would be an excellent tool in labs in universities all over the world. It would let students be able to study replicas of fossils and specimens that they wouldn’t previously be able to get a hold of. Finally, it may give us an insight as to how extinct animals moved and behaved, by creating robotic replicas with muscles and working moving parts.

hominoid skull


3D print a fossil with virtual palaeontology; January 2013 by Rowan Hooper for New Scientist issue 2899

3D printing: A gimmick or a game changer?; January 2013 by Stephen Lepitak

Additive Manufacturing Technologies: Rapid Prototyping to Direct Digital Manufacturing; Ian Gibson, David W. Rosen, Brent Stucker; 2009

The rise of additive manufacturing; 24 May 2010 Jon Excell, Stuart Nathan




Image 1: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/willardfoxton2/100008357/stop-talking-rubbish-about-3d-printing/

Image 2: courtesy of Sergio Azevedo

Image 3: http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?hl=en&tbo=d&biw=1525&bih=714&tbm=isch&tbnid=q_wyBxu5vi89bM:&imgrefurl=http://shapeways.tumblr.com/post/26979753383/madeinthefuture-3d-printing-dinosaurs-digital&docid=iWyB6aZViU8mnM&imgurl=http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m7054z9O581qgoa30o1_500.jpg&w=500&h=500&ei=v1cBUcLBGcqf0QWr94DQDA&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=207&vpy=4&dur=397&hovh=225&hovw=225&tx=156&ty=119&sig=109176819055989437236&page=1&tbnh=141&tbnw=143&start=0&ndsp=27&ved=1t:429,r:8,s:0,i:103

Image 4: http://www.shapeways.com/blog/archives/1354-what-does-a-3d-printed-bunny-cost.html

Image 5: courtesy of Dave Stock


About danniteboul

Palaeobiologist at the University of Portsmouth- Undergrad 20 years old Follow: @danniteboul
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