The Dinosaur Museum and Research Center at Southwestern Adventist University is doing something amazing. They are printing dinosaurs. Now before you start imagining a real-life Jurassic Park or our recent Skele-Rex video it's not that kind of printing. They are using a Gigabot 3D printer to replicate dinosaur bones.
So what's the big deal? People are 3D printing all kinds of stuff these days, why are dinosaur bones so important? 3D printing allows scientists to complete a puzzle they've been missing pieces to for thousands of years. As they uncover more fossils and skeletons across the globe they are able to complete more of the puzzle. Until recently they have been reliant on casting to duplicate a bone or using real bones to build life-size armatures. Unfortunately, using real bones can be destructive to the bones themselves. By utilizing 3D scanning they can image the bones digitally and use the resulting 3D model to 3D print an entire skeleton or just fill in the blanks.
So how do the bones go from being buried in the ground to scanned and 3D printed? Excellent question and for SWAU the process starts much like it has in the past. A dinosaur bone is found in an area and a dig site or quarry is established to determine if there are more where the original bone came from. As they explore the quarry and bones are found teams work to excavate the specimens as carefully as possible. Once they have cleared enough debris away from a bone they document measurements, take pictures and tag its GPS location. The bones are then fully excavated and sent back to SWAU to be cleaned. They need to get as much debris off of the bones as possible prior to scanning. The bones are then 3D scanned either by taking a series of photos or a laser 3D scanner is used. The team takes that data and utilizes software to turn the photos or digital readings from the bone into a virtual 3D model. SWAU has made all of their bone catalogs, maps, GPS data, photos and 3D models available to the public on the Dinosaur Museum website (https://fossil.swau.edu/). After they have a 3D model of the bones all that is left is to send them to their Gigabot 3D printer. SWAU has successfully 3D printed an entire Thescelosaurus skeleton, which is on display at the museum.
So far SWAU has accumulated over 20,000 bones and brings home almost 1,000 new bones every year. As they add to their growing database of 3D models they have a goal of keeping the information public with the hopes that it will inspire the next generation. And as they say "If you're not sharing information, you're not doing science."