3D Printed Fossils

It’s been several weeks since my last post about art and fossils, but I have not been idle – oh no! Following on from previous posts on this blog outlining my strategy for using virtual fossils as a tool for public engagement, I’ve been hard at work creating the resource that will help me achieve this.

The most exciting development in recent weeks is that I’ve managed to obtain 3-D prints of a select few fossils, meaning I now have my very own virtual fossils sitting proud on my desk. Even the geologists are jealous! I have learnt a lot about 3-D printing during this period; most especially about the different machines and materials that are used for printing objects. In this post, I will focus on a plastic model of a fossil ammonite, which was printed at the Jewellery and Industry Innovation Centre (JIIC), Birmingham City University. Special thanks to Keith Adcock and Frank Cooper at the JIIC for all their help with this.

The ammonite in question is a 165-million-year-old fossil from near Fairford, a small town in Gloucestershire, England. Ammonites are common marine fossils from the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic eras, and are familiar to more or less anyone who has even a passing interest in palaeontology. This specimen is the same one that served as inspiration for the artistic transformation described in my previous post. The fossil was CT scanned at the Natural History Museum, London and then reconstructed as a virtual fossil on a ‘normal’ desktop PC using freely available software.

After a bit of work ‘cleaning’ this digital fossil, again using free software, it was ready for 3-D printing. The fossil was built as a physical object on an Objet Eden350, which uses photopolymer jetting technology to print in horizontal layers around one hundredth of a millimetre thick, and hence models are highly detailed, accurate and clean. The material used for printing was a rigid opaque plastic known as VeroWhitePlus, which is tough and durable. After printing, support material was carefully removed from the object, and it was hand painted white to give a nice, uniform finish:

3D Print of Ammonite

3D Print of Fossil Ammonite.

The 3-D print, pictured above, retains fine details of the original fossil, including the intricate growth lines. Build lines are not prominent owing to their sub-millimetre spacing; however, vertical layering is apparent in places – this is a product of the CT scanning process, as the virtual fossil was originally generated from several hundred closely spaced slice images, and these slices could not be smoothed in the computer reconstruction without obscuring fossil details. Nevertheless, I’m very pleased with the overall build quality, and will most likely use this machine/material combination for the majority of the models I print.

Coming next time, metal fossils!

3D Print of Crabs

3D Print of Fossil Crabs.

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2 Responses to 3D Printed Fossils

  1. That is amazing. Seems a great way to study textures. Would also be a fun way to engage students, anything in three dimensions trumps books most days.

    (Okay, and I’ll guiltily confess it’d be great ot have a proxy to figure new wirework and art project designs off off…)

    • Thanks! I totally agree that being able to show students three-dimensional digital and physical models of fossils is potentially a great way of engaging them with palaeontology – and is becoming increasingly practical as more and more fossils are digitized….

      I had a look at your blog, really cool stuff, the fossil pieces in particular caught my eye!

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