Using Powder Bed Fusion 3D Printing For Fossil Reconstruction

3D Printed Fossil Reconstruction using Powder Bed Fusion

Bringing the Past to Life: The Revolutionary Role of 3D Scanning and 3D Printing in Fossil Exhibits

Written By: Ian Nakamoto, Designer - August 23, 2019

The museum world has always been a delicate balance between preservation and public accessibility. When it comes to fossils, these ancient artifacts are both invaluable educational tools, and fragile pieces of history. The Royal BC Museum in British Columbia, Canada, stands as a noteworthy example of how 3D scanning and printing technologies are revolutionizing the preservation and study of fossilized remains. 

fossilized skeleton of bison occidentalis

The Site C Culture and Heritage Resources Committee—comprised of 13 Indigenous nations and BC Hydro—partnered with W3 Design Group and Forge Labs in 2019 for a unique fabrication project. The aim was to create a 3D printed scale-model reconstruction of a 12,500-year-old fossilized skeleton of a bison occidentalis

 

The original plan was to 3D scan each bone of the ancient bison from the Royal BC Museum's collection, creating a digital replica that would serve both scientific and educational purposes. However, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the works - due to restrictions on close gatherings, the scanning team was physically unable to access the museum's collection. 

 

Instead, the Forge Labs team referenced hundreds of photographs taken during the excavation of the bison skeleton to digitally sculpt an accurate replica. The expert advice and additional anatomical reference generously provided by Dr. Edward H. Davies was essential in accurately recreating anatomical features of the skeleton. The result was a highly detailed digital model that served as the basis for a physical replica, printed using Forge Labs' advanced 3D printing technologies.

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SLS 3D Printing Technology Used To Recreate The Fossils

The 3D printed parts needed to be high resolution to capture the fine cracks and details in the bones, durable enough to survive repeated touching by audiences, and easy to paint - making selective laser sintering in Nylon 12 an excellent fit. The material was chosen because it was durable enough to create tactile replicas that could be touched, making exhibits more accessible for visually impaired visitors.

3D printed replica of a fossilized skeleton done by Forge Labs 3D printing in Vancouver BC

All the bones were keyed to allow for easy assembly once printed and to allow for easy alignment of the complex model onto the curved, CNC  base.

Components of 3D printed fossilized skeleton

Finally, the parts were provided to W3 Design, who mounted the bones to a sculpted plinth and painted them - showcasing the skeleton as it would have looked during the initial excavation.

 

This collaboration between the Royal BC Museum, the Site C Culture and Heritage Resources Committee, W3 Design Group, and Forge Labs is an excellent example of how technology can aid in both the preservation and education of history. By using 3D scanning and printing technologies, we can not only safeguard and present delicate artifacts, but also make them more accessible for teaching and interaction. This project stands as a testament to the synergies between technology and cultural heritage.

3D printed fossilized skeleton of a bison completed display

3D scanning and printing technologies have emerged as invaluable tools for the museum industry,  of preservation, detailed study, public engagement, and accessibility. This approach ensures that these delicate fossils can be both safeguarded and shared—bringing the past to life for generations to come.

 

Through the use of 3D technologies, we are witnessing a seismic shift in how museums operate, promising a more interactive and enriching experience for visitors while ensuring that precious pieces of our natural history are preserved for future generations. It's a win-win situation for both museums and the public, as we continue to explore new ways of making the past accessible and relevant in a digital age.

Full display of 3D printed fossilized skeleton of a bison for BC Hydro exhibit