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A Tale of Two Fossils: 3D Printing Ancient Primate Skulls and Futuristic Insects

In the world of 3D printing and direct digital manufacturing (DDM), we've touched on a number of current applications — everything from the first printed automobile to the printing of blood cells and even food. We didn't mention fossils. But we should have — it's a fascinating application of this rapidly growing technology.

3D printed fossils with Eric DelsonAt the Lehman College 3D Virtual and Solid Visualization Laboratory in the Bronx, a paleoanthropologist by the name of Eric Delson is using a 3D printer to create highly-detailed replicas of fossil primate skulls colored an endearing baby blue.

According to an article in Scientific American, this approach has a number of advantages. By laser scanning the delicate relics dug up in the field, Delson can produce precise copies without damaging the originals. This approach replaces the traditional method of creating models of old bones, which includes covering the item under study in liquid rubber to create a mold — a time-consuming task that has the potential to damage the fragile fossil. Also, even the best mold can only be used to cast a half-dozen to a dozen replicas before it wears out. A 3D CAD program hooked up to a 3D printer can make as many copies as you like. In addition, you can generate larger or smaller versions of the fossils for teaching purposes.

Objet Eden260 printerBut that's not all. Reconstruction of the missing pieces of a fragment of fossil is much easier with digital modeling techniques. For example, Lucy (a.k.a. Australopithecus afarensis), unearthed in the 1970s, is missing about 60 percent of the bones she was born with. From the recovered 40 percent, her entire skeletal structure can be recreated, 3D printed, and assembled, providing a good look at the internal superstructure of a creature that roamed the earth 3.9 to 2.9 million years ago.

And there's even more. By studying the DNA sequences of modern primates, Delson and other researchers have been able to create a family tree of primate evolution. Delson's specialty, geometric morphometrics — a way of describing a skull's shape and size ­— allows him to create a system of 3-D coordinates for every skull on the family tree. Armed with that information, he can simulate and print out replicas of skulls of all of these ancient relatives of ours even though an actual fossil record has not been found.

Bugs that Never Were

While Delson is recreating the past in his Bronx laboratory, another character far removed from academia is using 3D printing to create what he calls "future fossils."

Macouno Entoform 0041 - Oculos AngustusThe artist Dolf Veenvliet (a.k.a. Macouno) is using 3D printing to create models of creatures that have yet to exist. The insect-like forms are modeled using an analog of the DNA sequences in humans that determine our characteristics. For these "Entoforms," the operative DNA sequence can be created from any text, including your own name or a poem by Emily Dickinson. Each run results in about 1,440 variants on the genetic sequence, but, just as in real life, only a few of those variations result in potential life forms.

For more on this quirky use of 3D printing, watch the creatures morph, and hear Macouno provide an enigmatic overview of his work, watch this You Tube video.

Strange future insect fossils that never were from the fertile mind of an artist, or pale blue reconstructions of ancient primate skulls and skeletons — in both instances, it's the magic of 3D printing that brings them to life in the here and now.

Posted by John Kirkley - October 12, 2011 @ 4:49 PM, Pacific Daylight Time

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