zwinThe Zwin Nature Reserve bills (no pun intended) itself as an “international bird airport.” Located in the West Flanders region of Belgium, the reserve is a favorite stopping point for migratory birds, and thus a favorite stopping point for birdwatchers. As any good bird nerd knows, there’s nothing more exciting than catching sight of a species that’s rarely seen or, even better, is non-native to the area but passes through on its annual migratory path. You should see the uproar in Ohio when the snowy owls come through.

Belgians are just as bird-obsessed as Ohioans, it seems; the Zwin Nature Reserve is expecting around 200,000 visitors this year after it opens its new visitor center. The official opening will be taking place on June 10, and to create the best visitor experience possible, the Zwin and its design team, fellow Belgian organization Madoc, wanted to fill the center with birds. Not real ones, obviously, but the next best thing: 3D printed birds.

While just a glimpse of a rarely-seen bird is enough to get a birder into a flutter of excitement, it’s nearly impossible to get up close to any kind of wild bird, and the Zwin wanted to create a center that would replicate the experience of seeing and examining birds up close, without having to harm any.

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“We are so familiar with it we tend to forget what a wonder it is: ten billion birds make a long, dangerous trip, sometimes to the other side of the globe, twice a year,” states the Zwin’s website. “How does a young cuckoo find its way to Africa all on its own? Why does even the most modern jet fail to match the flying technique of a swallow? How does a bar-tailed godwit manage to fly thousands of kilometres non-stop? And why do so many migratory birds find a safe haven here in the Zwin? This exhibition gives you the answers, but new questions keep on popping up. As much as we know already about bird migration, we still feel wonder and a deep admiration.”

P1040381-001To cultivate that sense of wonder and admiration, the design team turned to service provider Materialise with a request for 20 3D printed birds to populate the visitor center. While photography and video are great educational tools, they can’t replicate the sense of standing next to a real creature, and the Zwin wanted that real, interactive sense for their exhibit. The design team asked Materialise to create ten 3D printed replicas of different species of birds in flight and ten on the ground. Those models would then be placed in the exhibit’s five sections, with each section dedicated to a phase of the migratory journey, from preparation to arrival and then procreation.

The point of 3D printing is the creation of perfect replicas down to the last detail, which no other art form can completely accomplish. Even with advanced 3D printing technology, though, such projects are a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with large models. Materialise managed the rather sizable STL files by running them through their Build Processor software, which sliced them into ultra-thin layers that the printers could more easily manage.

Finally, the birds were printed in white polyamide, post-processed, and coated in a protective layer before being shipped off to the Zwin Nature Reserve, where they await visitors who will get to study them in detail while learning about their live counterparts – the better to identify them from afar as the birds pass through the reserve on their way to their seasonal destinations.

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