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FATHOM 3D Prints a Device to Solve a Great White Shark Mystery

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Happy Shark Week! Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the Discovery Channel’s shark-centered programming week, and its staying power is a testament to how much people love sharks. Most people wouldn’t necessarily like to get too close to one, but humans are naturally fascinated by the things that scare us/could potentially kill us – just look at the popularity of TV shows and movies about tornadoes, zombies, the general apocalypse, dragons, clowns, etc., etc.

The most well-known, and well-feared, shark is probably the Great White Shark, and there’s a lot that scientists still don’t understand about the species. For example, the Great White Sharks native to Californian coastal waters have a peculiar migration behavior. Every year, they migrate from the coast of California to the Hawaiian Islands and back, but that’s not the strange part – each year, they stop for a while and just “hang out” in a region about at the halfway point.

What do you mean you’re out of soy milk? [Image: New Scientist]

That wouldn’t be so odd in itself – halfway seems like a good resting point – but the region, dubbed the Shark Café, is pretty much the worst café ever. It’s what’s known as an underwater desert, with a lack of marine life that could feed predators such as sharks. So why do they choose to hang around in that particular spot? Even more mysteriously, the sharks have displayed odd behavior at the Shark Café, about 900 miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. They’ve been observed rapidly swimming up and down between the surface and a depth of about 250 meters, pausing occasionally.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) decided to try to get to the bottom of the mystery by tagging a number of sharks with a video camera attachment that would record their behavior in the Shark Café and hopefully provide a better idea of exactly what they’re doing. Designing such a tag wasn’t easy, though. The tags needed to be durable enough to survive for up to 10 months underwater, and the video module needed to have a maximum depth of 1200 meters and a video/photo depth of up to 200 meters. The tag would also have to be programmed with a special algorithm that allowed it to record only when the sharks were performing their strange diving behavior.

To address these and other requirements, MBARI turned to 3D printing technology, with help from FATHOM.

“3D printing has opened new design approaches—printing holes for wires that could not possibly be machined, printing pressure housings, printing fluidic paths for ocean instrumentation that allow for miniaturization, on and on,” said MBARI Software Engineer Thom Maughan. “For this project, we could have used machined parts, but that would have changed the shape to something simpler and less hydrodynamic. The SharkCafeCam project is open source, and we want those that use the open source mechanical designs to have the flexibility to change and adapt the design for future users.”

Along with its partnerships with some big names in 3D printing and dedication to client service, FATHOM has become known for some rather unusual 3D printing projects, including a Cheetos short film and some fancy tracking tech for Mercedes-Benz. The West Coast-based service bureau was happy to help with MBARI’s shark tracking project.

“I’ve always been fascinated by sharks (and I’m a huge fan of Shark Week), so when MBARI first approached us with their concept, I couldn’t wait for our team to get started. And when they shared with us that FATHOM could be involved in hopefully solving the mystery of the Shark Café, we were even more eager to be a part of the project,” Rich Stump, FATHOM Co-Founder and Principal, told 3DPrint.com of the company’s involvement with the project.

“FATHOM is consistently pushing boundaries in researching manufacturing processes, but aiding in marine biology research was definitely something new for us.”

[Image: FATHOM]

FATHOM’s Account Manager Chris Lem worked closely with MBARI throughout the product development process, advising the team on the best 3D printing technologies for each phase. They used PolyJet technology and VeroClear 3D printing material for prototyping, allowing them to clearly see the parts of the video attachment, and how those parts interacted with each other, in each iteration. Additional iterations were 3D printed with Nylon, using SLS technology, for additional strength-to-weight ratio and durability testing. Finally, when the initial design was complete, the team 3D printed the final parts for field testing using FDM technology and engineering-grade plastic.

“We’re really excited about this project as a demonstration of the kinds of natural mysteries we can tackle when we’re not constrained by limits of traditional manufacturing,” Michelle Mihevc, FATHOM Co-Founder and Principal, told 3DPrint.com.

“AT FATHOM, we love the challenge of a high-pressure, mission-specific product—that’s when our team and additive manufacturing shine brightest.”

Will FATHOM’s 3D printing technology ultimately solve the mystery of the White Shark Café? That’s the hope – but at the very least, 3D printing enabled MBARI to save money and time compared to the cost and time that would have been involved trying to complete the project with traditional manufacturing methods. Now we wait and see if the technology allows us a glimpse into the secret lives of sharks. Who knows – maybe we’ll find out the answers during a future Shark Week. Discuss in the FATHOM forum at 3DPB.com.


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