Jan 10, 2016 | By Benedict

Biochemistry professor Dr. Alan Drummond has been creating highly detailed 3D printed trilobites, using both a Formlabs Form 1 3D printer and metal 3D printing services provided by Shapeways.

3D printing technology may represent the future of manufacturing, but it still comes in pretty handy when exploring the past. Dr. Drummond, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Chicago, has a passion for trilobites—a group of extinct marine arthropods which roamed the oceans for over 270 million years. Wanting to get closer to the extinct creatures than pictures, books and fossils would allow, he decided to collect a huge amount of visual data on trilobite anatomy, which could then be collated and turned into lifelike 3D printed replicas. “I always wanted to hold a trilobite, to pick one up out of the rock, turn it over, run my fingers along the spines,” the professor explained on The Fossil Forum.

3D printing a trilobite may sound like a fun project, but Dr. Drummond soon realized the challenges he would face. A quick glance at a trilobite fossil, diagram or illustration will set the alarm bells ringing for many 3D printing enthusiasts: a large number of slender limbs combined with long, protruding antennae seems like the perfect recipe for a broken 3D print. With this and other factors in mind, the biochemistry professor decided to amalgamate a number of different species within the trilobite genus, forsaking the “frilly details” which would not survive post-processing, in order to create the most 3D print-friendly trilobite in history.

Pencil sketches turned into more advanced Inkscape projects, which then made their way into the Blender open-source creation suite. The resultant design was a robust, 3D printable model, mostly inspired by the Ceraurus trilobite, a genus that roamed the Earth 470-445 million years ago, and which possessed “enough detail to warrant 3D printing [but] enough structural solidity to survive it.” Various other specimens were used as inspiration for the design, while the 3D printable trilobite also possessed a few imaginary features, added to improve its 3D printability.

“The first step in this project was to look at as many trilobites as possible and choose one,” said Drummond. “I've always loved these fossils, but the moment they turned from fossils into living organisms for me was when I saw the new generation of preparations displayed at Chicago's Field Museum. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. In my mind, trilobites were flat, if beautiful, primitive creatures. Seeing those preparations made it clear how not-flat and not-primitive they were.”

Having access to a Formlabs Form 1 3D printer at his university, Dr. Drummond was able to 3D print the initial model immediately, with the first attempt printed in clear resin at a resolution of 0.05mm. This translucent trilobite was followed by an improved model printed in black resin, which Drummond rinsed in isopropanol straight after removing it from the Form 1 build platform. The trilobite enthusiast was, however, still not satisfied with his creation, deeming the legs “too crustacean”. Amendments were made, before the model was sent off to Shapeways for a completely new look and feel.

Having used Shapeways for other 3D printing projects in the past, Dr. Drummond had faith that the company could deliver a metal 3D printed trilobite of the highest quality. He was not disappointed: a series of direct-metal printed versions of the Ceraurus model, despite some flaws, offered a massive improvement on the resin-printed models. Drummond also used Shapeways’ Frosted Ultra Detail resin printing process, which permits layers with a 29-micron step size, for an ultra-detailed plastic print of a different trilobite design.

The pièce de résistance of Dr. Drummond’s series is a stunning bronze-printed model, also 3D printed by Shapeways, but finished using a technique of Drummond’s own. “Using liver of sulfur, a poorly understood quasi-alchemic brew, I oxidized these pieces, creating a patina, then polished the patina off of the raised parts,” the professor explained. “What a difference! The details leap out. The ‘bling’ recedes.”

With the bronze 3D printed trilobite infinitely more impressive than the initial resin prints, Dr. Drummond is understandably pleased with his final creations. “Underneath, she may be the most accurate life-size reconstruction of a trilobite out there,” he explained. “The endopods (legs) closely follow Stormer's 1939 and 1951 reconstruction studies, down to the segmental architecture of each limb.”

To complete the project, Dr. Drummond had a similar model printed in solid silver, which perfectly complements the bronze model.

All images: Dr. Alan Drummond

“You can imagine her exploring her world, questing with her cephalic appendages and antennae, seeking prey and potential mates,” Drummond enthused.

With creations like these, we can only hope that the professor continues to explore the world we inhabit daily: the world of 3D printing.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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