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Three-Dimensional Printing

The University of Texas High-Resolution X-ray CT Facility is able to print its scans as 3D models! Using our 3D Systems ThermoJet solid object printer, we can transform 3D renderings based on our digital CT data into physical objects. The rapid prototyping printer uses a thermoplastic material, deposited layer-by-layer by an inkjet-like printer head, to carefully build a model. This technology not only lets us make casts of the many rare specimens that we scan, but also allows us to scale these models up or down -- so that detailed features on a tiny specimen can be rendered large enough to be seen without the aid of a microscope. Casts of internal features normally hidden from external view -- such as the cranial cavity and inner ear canals and labyrinths -- can also be printed, presenting unique objects for study and research. The STL data files used to generate these 3D printouts can be distributed over the internet, giving anyone who has a 3D printer the data necessary to generate models. As this new technology becomes more common, this will allow researchers and students improved access to rare and unique specimens. Click here for a list of DigiMorph taxa for which printable STL files can be downloaded.

Among those who have used this resource is Dr. Amy Balanoff, a former paleontology graduate student in The University of Texas Department of Geological Sciences. Amy was working on reconstructing and describing the embryo of an extinct elephant bird still encased in its egg. Using CT scan data, Amy digitally isolated each element of the skeleton, then rendered them as both life-sized and enlarged 3D physical models. This technique allowed her to study the skeleton without having to crack the egg.

Dr. Amy Balanoff, a former paleontology graduate student at The University of Texas, removes a model from the 3D printer.

A life-sized printout of the bottom of the elephant bird egg containing the embryonic remains, along with a scaled-up printout of an isolated foot bone. The foot bone's position in the egg is indicated by the arrow.

3D printouts can be useful when casting delicate or rare specimens. Molds can be created from 3D printouts instead of the actual specimens, reducing the possibility of damage.

A 3D printout of Lanthanotus borneensis, the earless "monitor" lizard from Borneo. Model printed about three times life-size.

The 3d printout on the left was used to make a mold, from which bronze casts like this one were made.

Casts of the interior cavities of objects, called endocasts, can also be printed as 3D models. The shape of the endocast of the cranial cavity of many animals, especially mammals and birds, closely conforms to the shape of the brain. 3D printouts of digital infillings of these cavities based on CT data thus provide a non-destructive means to study the shape of the brain.

A 3D printout of Monodelphis domestica, the gray short-tailed opossum. Model printed at about twice life-size.

A printout of the cranial endocast of the specimen shown on the left. Model printed at about six times life-size.

To learn more about 3D printing technology try the following links:

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