Nov.14, 2014 | By Alec

3D printing technology is regarded by many as the future of manufacturing, but who would have guessed it can also be used to give the past a new purpose? Researchers at the University of Connecticut have been doing exactly that, by 3D printing the necessary parts to give hundred-year-old instruments a new opportunity to play beautiful music.

There are many antique instruments in museums all over the world, and while proper preservation is doubtlessly crucial, it's also very unfortunate that these will likely never again be used for what they were created. Why not? Well, because many handcrafted instruments are simply unique. All components have been individually made, and no two parts are exactly the same.

This means that if something breaks, or goes missing (which is already the case for many museum pieces), it's virtually impossible to recreate them with traditional manufacturing technologies used for musical instruments. This is especially the case for blow instruments, that need to be designed just right for the air to produce the sounds a musician is looking for.

This makes it especially impressive that scientists from the University of Connecticut have succeeded in reproducing crucial parts using 3D printing technology. Medical doctor and musical scientist Robert Howe has been pursuing his love for antique instruments for years, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Connecticut. In collaboration with his doctoral advisor, professor of music theory Richard Bass, and the University's engineering department, he developed a method to exactly recreate the crucial parts of instruments: up to thousandths of millimetres.

As they explained, the motivation behind this experiment has been to 'find a way to get better copies of the original antiques without subjecting them to any risks and subjecting the process to the errors of measurement by hand. The thought is that if one can take a hands-off set of measurements and then replicate the instrument directly, can one get a more accurate representation of the original? I would hope so.'

A saxophone mouthpiece, created by UConn researchers using 3-D printing technology, on a tenor saxophone in B-flat made in 1867 by Adolphe Sax, who invented the instrument. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

To do that, they have resorted to using a a technology typically exclusive to medical science: micro-computed tomography. This allowed them to exactly chart the measurements of 18th- and 19th-century musical instruments (such as the saxophone), up to a scale where you'd think it was pointless. It even works on a variety of materials often used to develop instruments, including wood, metal, brass, and leather. As they explained, this has allowed them to create replications with the utmost precision.

Digital scans show the original foot joint of an antique 1770 Cahusac recorder, with cracks and dents (top), as compared with a flawless reconstruction of the piece (bottom) created by UConn researchers using 3-D printing technology while maintaining the exact geometry of the original.

Most importantly, this allows them to once again play instruments that have stayed silent for a hundred, or even hundreds, of years while also enabling a type of security authentication for these rare instruments. As professor Bass explained, 'For example, if we could make 3-D images or copies of some essential parts of an instrument and it gets stolen, we could verify it's that instrument if it turns up somewhere else. If we have an exact copy of a piece of that instrument in a vault, there's real potential for museums and collectors to authenticate and protect their collections.'

A 1770 recorder made by Thomas Cahusac, with a foot piece made by Sina Shahbazmohamadi '13 Ph.D. using 3D printing. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

So far, this has resulted in replications or replacement parts of a number of instruments, including a recorder made in London  by Thomas Cahusac in 1770, various saxophones made by the father of that instrument, Adolphe Sax, an English horn made in 1840 and the a ophicleide, a type of tuba from the 19th century. This last instrument featured a unique wooden mouthpiece, but even that could be replicated.

A soprano saxophone made in 1866 by Adolphe Sax, with a mouthpiece created by UConn researchers using 3-D printing technology. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The 1866 saxophone seen above, for instance, was missing a piece and needed a few replacements as well. These were scanned in their specifically designed software, made by Sina Shahbazmohamadi, an assistant professor at Manhattan College. Due to the level of detail, however, this required several scans. 'The machine goes up to half a micron. You can't do it by one image session,' he revealed. 'We had to do stitching. We did the top part, then the bottom part, and used an algorithm to stitch them together.'

Sina Shahbazmohamadi '13 Ph.D. has developed a new method for using micro-computed tomography

Several versions of these pieces were subsequently designed, one featuring all the original flaws, one with corrections and one that had been improved upon. These were then printed on an unnamed 3D printer using stereolithography printing technology.

So far, 3D printing has thus served to give a new life to these instruments, and Bass and Howe hope that it will serve music scientists and enthusiasts of the future. Aside from recreating missing or broken parts and offering an added layer of security, they are also envisioning several other benefits.

It could for instance, also serve as a wonderful tool in helping museums and collectors in authenticating instruments. But most importantly, as music lovers everywhere will surely understand, 3D printing is above serving to enable audiences to hear the music as our ancestors would have heard it. While Bach and Beethoven can be reproduced from sheet music, you can only truly capture their musical essence through the instruments of their day. 'For that, you can't look in the historical records.'

For more, take a look at this short clip on this inspiring use of 3D printing:

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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