Aug 6, 2016 | By Benedict

The University of Washington’s College of Engineering and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture have joined forces to 3D print the missing bones of a Columbian mammoth skeleton due to be displayed in the museum’s new exhibition hall. The project should be completed by 2019.

The latest installment of the Ice Age movie franchise may have received a frosty critical reception, but the general public still has a lot of love for the mammoth, a 13-foot-tall tusked behemoth which walked alongside the earliest humans. Just ask the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, an archaeological and ethnographic museum located at the University of Washington in Seattle, which is currently embarking on what could be described as a mammoth 3D printing project. In collaboration with staff and students at the university’s College of Engineering, the museum is attempting to “complete” a Columbian mammoth skeleton discovered near Richland, Washington, which has retained only 20% of its bones.

When the museum opens its new exhibition hall in 2019, it wants to impress its visitors with the giant mammoth skeleton, but needs to fill in the missing pieces before it can do so. Traditionally, museums have sculpted missing skeleton pieces with foam and clay, a laborious process which can take a very long time. Therefore, the Seattle-based institution is instead looking to harness the power of 3D printing and 3D scanning in order to more accurately and easily create the missing parts of the skeleton.

While the museum could have attempted to 3D print the missing 80% of the Columbian mammoth itself, staff at both Burke and the university’s College of Engineering decided that a collaborative printing project could be beneficial for both parties. Burke discussed the plausibility of the project with Steven Weidner, an affiliate instructor from UW's mechanical engineering department, to see if he could lead a group of students in the exciting venture. The instructor was keen to get on board, and quickly set up a special 3D scanning and printing course, signing up a number of undergraduate and postgraduate students who were interested in both natural history and 3D printing. “By printing this mammoth, we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with large-scale 3D printing,” Weidner said.

Students from a number of disciplines have joined the project, which involves 3D scanning mammoth bones from other mammoths in the museum’s collection, as well as 3D scanning bones of the Richland mammoth which can then be mirrored to represent its corresponding missing bones. Students can then precisely model the scanned images to create 3D printable bone segments. The special course has already run for two quarters, with the Winter 2016 class led by the mechanical engineering department and the Spring 2016 class led by the biology department. Around 20 students signed up each quarter, and the course has even benefitted from guest lecturers. Burke and the participating students have been in constant contact as the students explore different techniques for scanning, modeling, and printing.

Participants on the 3D printing course have, according to the university, enjoyed taking part in a course which is both educational and situated in a professional environment: “An opportunity to work with fossils and cutting-edge scanning and modeling technologies? I signed up for the class immediately,” said pre-engineering junior Kurt Weiss. “These areas deal heavily with 3D renderings and scaled models testing within wind tunnels,” he says. “So the experience I’m getting through this class with the wide variety of scanning equipment, modeling programs, and printing technologies is helping me develop the knowledge and skills I’ll need down the road.”

The 3D scanning of the mammoth bones has been taking place at Burke. Small or medium-sized bones take around three hours each to scan, while larger pieces like the skull can take more than five hours. Interestingly, the 3D scanning is proving to be beneficial to the museum and students in ways beyond the project at hand. The digital scans are, for example, allowing researchers to better understand the mammoth’s anatomy. Burke is also planning to make the 3D files available online, allowing researchers from all over the world to take a closer look at them. “Our goal is to provide a complete digital atlas of the mammoth—and eventually, other fossils—that can be used by researchers and the general public to answer research questions and for education,” explained Meredith Rivin, Burke’s collections manager.

To work out how to best 3D print the mammoth bones, the students have been working closely with WOOF3D, a 3D printing society at the university which has developed a prototype of its own large-scale 3D printer called “Big Blue.” With the 3D printing project set to continue over the next few years, Burke has been impressed with the students’ range of skills and commitment to the cause. “They’re fearless and curious,” Rivin said. “They’re not intimidated by the scope of the project or its hurdles but instead are eager for the challenges. They’ve approached this project like real professionals.”

If all goes to plan, the partially 3D printed mammoth could be on display at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture by 2019.

 

Source: University of Washington
Photo credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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