Jul 10, 2016 | By Tess

As we know, 3D printing technologies have an almost limitless range of applications within a broad number of fields. On a nearly daily basis we’ll cover stories about medical applications for 3D printing, as well as its growing influence in the field of fashion. Sometimes though, the most interesting uses for the technology come from the most unexpected places. Recently, for instance, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation demonstrated how its forensic anthropology labs have incorporated the technology to help put names to unidentified human remains.

Every year in the U.S. about 4,400 human remains are found that cannot be positively identified, and among those more than 1,000 are not identified even a year later. To help local police forces to identify these remains, the FBI has set up the Trace Evidence Unit in Quantico, Virginia that can be consulted for free to recreate facial approximations of the deceased. According to the FBI, about 20 requests are made a year to the lab.

The purpose of the lab, as mentioned, is to recreate facial approximations of unidentified remains based off of extensive anthropological analysis, and an in depth study of the skull by a forensic artist. Lisa Bailey, a visual information specialist at the FBI Lab who sculpts the facial approximations, explains how crucial they can be to identifying the remains and ultimately closing a missing person’s case. In the past few years, the FBI facial approximations have led to three positive identifications, most recently in Massachusetts when a missing woman’s brother saw her approximation on the news.

The process for the facial reconstructions is a complex one, which begins with a team of forensic anthropologists who analyze and write a report about the remains which includes the deceased’s age, sex, ancestry, and other relevant details. If a skull happens to be part of the remains, it will be sent to the Lab’s Operational Projects Unit to be 3D scanned for the purpose of 3D printing a replica of it. From there the report and the 3D printed skull are sent to forensic artists like Bailey, who pieces the information together.

Bailey, who joined the FBI 14 years ago, has become an expert at studying skull features like brows, cheek bones, eye settings, teeth alignment, and facial proportions. She explains, “First, I read the anthropologists report and I sit and just evaluate the skull…Every face is different because every skull is different. You can recognize somebody—even at a distance—because of the proportion of their face.”

When she has finished examining the 3D printed skull replica, Bailey begins to sculpt over it with clay, staying close to definitive features and shapes. For facial features like ears, lips, and eyelids, which cannot be guessed by the skull alone, Bailey refers back to the anthropological report and a database of skulls, anonymous faces, and additional research. For an artist, not going outside the lines, so to speak, is the most difficult part, she explains. “You have to pull back and only do what the skull is showing you,” she says.

Once the sculpting process is done, the facial approximation is then brought back to the forensic anthropologist for final consultation. Together, Bailey and the anthropologist working on the case make sure all of the features correspond and fit with the skull structure.

Of course, the most important part of the whole process is making sure the facial approximations are seen, so that the unidentified person can actually be identified. Currently, for instance, Minnesota police are hoping that the 3D facial reconstructions will help to identify a 35-40 year old woman who was found in 2000 and has still never been positively identified. Bailey explains “We need the right person to see this image pretty much at the right time. That’s one of the biggest things with these approximations—to get them out there. All we need is that one person to see it.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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