University of Washington Students Take on One Mammoth of a 3D Scanning and 3D Printing Project


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The Columbian Mammoth.

The Columbian Mammoth.

Located on the campus of the University of Washington, the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is the oldest museum on the West Coast and boasts a collection of 16 million artifacts and fossils. Among its collection are the remains of a 13,000-year-old giant Columbian Mammoth that stands over 13 feet tall at the shoulders. As the museum begins construction on a new building on campus, expected to open in 2019, the staff decided that they wanted to display their Columbian Mammoth skeleton in the new exhibition hall. The only problem is that when the skeleton was discovered near Richland, Washington only about 20% of its bones were found.

Pre-engineering junior Kurt Weiss scans a mammoth skull. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Pre-engineering junior Kurt Weiss scans a mammoth skull. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

While it isn’t uncommon for fossil skeletons to be missing a majority of their bones, the missing pieces are usually simply replaced with handmade replicas. However, because so much of the skeleton is currently missing, the museum staff wanted to find a way to compete the mammoth that was less time-consuming and inexact than the traditional method of creating replica bones. The Richland mammoth has most of its limbs and portions of the skull and mandibles; however, they would need to reproduce a number of large parts, including the massive tusks which could have been as much as 14 feet long. Burke collections manager Meredith Rivin decided that 3D printing would allow them to produce the needed parts much faster, and the replicated bones would end up being more accurate.

The museum staff reached out to Steven Weidner, an affiliate instructor from UW’s mechanical engineering department, for help. The size and scope of the project was, well, mammoth, and if it was successful it would completely change the way that the Burke’s collection of artifacts are documented, stored, shared with the scientific community and put on public display. A plan was developed that would call for Weidner to create a multi-year 3D printing and 3D scanning project. UW engineering students and instructors would be working closely with museum staff to scan, digitize and ultimately 3D print all of the missing parts of the mammoth skeleton as part of an interdisciplinary class that would merge engineering and paleontology.

Using hand-held 3D scanner to scan the mammoth skull. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Using a hand-held 3D scanner to scan the mammoth skull. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

“This project is where Jurassic Park meets the Star Trek replicator. By printing this mammoth, we’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with large-scale 3D printing,” explained Weidner.

A digital model of the mammoth skull can be turned into a 3D printable model. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

A digital model of the mammoth skull can be turned into a 3D printable model. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

Through this class, students will learn how to apply digital capture and additive manufacturing technologies to the management, cataloging and exhibition of a museum collection. The project is drawing together students from several different disciplines that do not often work together on projects on this scale. Both undergraduate and graduate students will be working closely together to 3D scan the existing mammoth bones, 3D print the replicas and recreate any missing bones using existing digital resources and CAD software. The class will also be 3D scanning and 3D printing replicas of other artifacts and fossils from the Burke’s collection.

In order to recreate the missing bones from the Richland mammoth, the team of students are resorting to some clever and rather resourceful cheats. The Burke’s collection has fossils from several other mammoths available, and they are 3D scanning bones from those and adapting them to their larger and more complete cousin. Additionally, they are also creating mirror-image copies of several of the Richland mammoth bones that do exist in order to fill in some of the holes. In addition to allowing the team to create the missing bones, it turns out that the 3D scanning process is also revealing a lot of valuable data on mammoth anatomy that will be made available online for researchers all over the world to study.

UW students compare a metatarsal (middle toe) bone from the Richland mammoth with its 3-D printed replica. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

UW students compare a metatarsal (middle toe) bone from the Richland mammoth with its 3D printed replica. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

The actual 3D scanning is done in the Burke facility where the bones are stored. Each bone is 3D scanned one at a time, with small- to medium-sized specimens taking about three hours each and larger bones occasionally taking more than five hours. The team is collecting a large amount of data, making sure that the final 3D scans are as exact as possible, and they are experimenting with several scanning technologies, including CT scans, 3D photogrammetry and handheld infrared scanners.  Once they have the raw scan, the team uses 3D modeling CAD software to convert them into 3D printable models.

“In every scan and printed item, we aim for perfection. ‘Good enough’ doesn’t cut it in engineering or in scientific research, and so we must ensure our final results are as close to the real thing as possible,” Weidner said.

3D printed replica of the Richland mammoth vertebra. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

3D printed replica of the Richland mammoth vertebra. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

So far the student team has 3D printed several of the smaller 3D scanned bones, like the metatarsals (toes) and the mammoth’s vertebrae using desktop 3D printers. However, the students are still exploring the best ways to produce the bone replicas. Different types of 3D printers are going to produce different final models, each with pros and cons, so part of the ongoing project is working to find the best 3D printers for the job. In fact, the class is working closely with a student-led 3D printing club at the UW College of Engineering called WOOF3D to build a custom, large-scale 3D printer named Big Blue. With a 1.5 cubic meter (4.9 foot) build space, Big Blue is being developed specifically to handle printing larger bones like the skull and the jaw bone.

Because the Richland mammoth project was developed as an interdisciplinary course, each session is being offered by different academic departments. For instance, the Winter 2016 session will be offered by the mechanical engineering department while the Spring 2016 session is being offered by the biology department. Not only does this draw in students from other disciplines, but it is giving those students a much broader educational experience that is expecting them to work with each other to identify problems and difficulties and then find solutions through experimentation with different technologies and methods. It is providing students who may not have ever had access to 3D printing and 3D scanning technology with new skills that they can take with them into the job market after they graduate. It isn’t often that pre-engineering students studying aerospace and aerodynamic design take a class offered by the the biology department.

UW students compare 3D printed replicas of a mammoth's vertebra that were created with two different 3-D printing processes. Image courtesey: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

UW students compare 3D printed replicas of a mammoth’s vertebra that were created with two different 3D printing processes. [Image: Dennis Wise/University of Washington]

“An opportunity to work with fossils and cutting-edge scanning and modeling technologies? I signed up for the class immediately. These areas deal heavily with 3D renderings and scaled models testing within wind tunnels. So the experience I’m getting through this class with the wide variety of scanning equipment, modeling programs and printing technologies is helping me develop the knowledge and skills I’ll need down the road,” explained pre-engineering student Kurt Weiss.

So far about 20 students have signed up for the class, and they range from first-year undergraduates to graduate students. Half of them are studying engineering degrees for mechanical engineering, aeronautics and astronautics, and human centered design and engineering, while the rest are studying museology, geology, paleobiology, archeology and even photomedia. Weidner plans to offer the course next year because he is certain that every future stage of the ongoing project will bring new challenges and problems that are excellent educational opportunities for students. What do you think of this ‘mammoth’ 3D printing project? Let’s discuss it further over in the 3D Printed Mammoth Skeleton forum at

[Source/Images: University of Washington]


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