3D Printed Visual Aids for the Courtroom

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I’ve been following the developments in 3D printing for the courts closely for years. We’ve seen how 3D scanners and VR can be used in the courts, how Canadian company C3DE wants to introduce 3D printed evidence, how 3DE was trying to do the same in the US, how 3D printed femurs can be used in forensic anthropology, how 3D printing is being used in forensic anthropology more broadly and how a 3D printed beer bottle was used for a demonstration in a UK court

3D scanning already plays a part in a lot of evidence collection and processing worldwide. Additionally, forensic animations have also grown as a tool over the years. So far, 3D printed evidence in the courtroom is a niche activity. Although a few firms seem to believe in 3D printed evidentiary tools, I could find scant evidence of it happening. Perhaps it is still a bit early for 3D printed evidence to become more prevalent. It could be that the whiff of the whizzbang still engulfs us, and this is keeping trial lawyers from using us often. I want to make a case for 3D printed evidence however, since I believe this should be a more popular thing. 

In the courtroom, visual aids can make a difference. Visual aids can give people an understanding of new complex subjects. An explanation accompanied by a visual aid can aid kinesthetic learners to understand something much clearer. A visual aid can also make a more precise memory. A clearer memory accompanies by touching an object will make that piece of evidence more memorable. With lots of two-dimensional images and talk cluttering your mind, a thing may rise to the fore. Complex shapes and interactions can also very simply be understood through objects that you can hold. 

Modern research studies show that about 75 percent of what people know is learned through visualization. A seminal study published in 1963 revealed that after 72 hours, humans tend to retain only 10 percent of the information they hear, and 20 percent of the information they see. When humans hear and see the same information, they retain 65 percent.

“In today’s world, where much of the jury has grown up watching law shows, such as CSI and Law and Order, the jury will expect that the evidence presented during a trial will include evidence that is visual in nature. A lawyer will have a much better chance at persuading a jury regarding liability issues and of his client’s damages when the jury is better able to understand what occurred and his client’s injuries and is interested in the subject. An attorney who tries a personal injury case without visual evidence will be at a distinct disadvantage in prosecuting the case.”

My go-to example of how useful 3D printed parts are for learning are the models of internal combustion engines. Almost no one can tell you how an engine works, but spend three minutes with a 3D printed model of one, and you can understand. For a jury member or judge who is wading into lots of information, I think that a 3D printed visual aid can make a difference. 

3D printed haptic models representing carpal and metacarpal bones during various hand movements: abduction (left), opposition (center), and key pinch (right)

Why could 3D printed visual aids make a difference in the courtroom?

  • Something new and exciting to jolt a jury into attentiveness.
  • By touching an object, a memory is created that can give this evidence more import and make it more memorable. 
  • Moving objects can give a jury member or judge an understanding of complex parts and systems. 
  • If some system or mechanism is vital for a case, then a 3D print could let people see it and work the system to understand it completely. 
  • A 3D print could make an assertion seem more real. 
  • A 3D printed topographical map could let someone understand a route or occurrence much clearer than a normal map. 
  • Color-coded parts and printed cutaways could make mechanisms easier to understand than the real thing. 
  • Unknown concepts such as “how DNA works” that are essential to the understanding of broader evidence can be explained in a very tactile way through 3D printed models. 
  • Evidence that is too dangerous to be handled (a gun) or too fragile (those two shards we have) can be handled at will by a jury. 
  • Complex time series could be explained in a board game type of way where the pieces on the board are representative and memorable for certain parties in the case. 
  • Evidence can be “blown up” showing people how a fiber fits in with another or how two chemicals interact.

    OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Things Keeping 3D Printed Evidence from the Courtroom

  • 3D Printing still seems too hobby for most people.
  • The technology can perhaps seem too new to be trustworthy.
  • Lawyers probably don’t know enough 3D printing people.
  • Lawyers probably don’t have enough exposure to the technology generally.
  • 3D printing has yet to be accepted in many courts. 

Things that are Super Problematic with 3D Printed Evidence 

  • You can change a 3D printed part a lot through small settings changes in the 3D file.
  • Settings changes on the machine can also change a part’s surface, size and shape.
  • Slicing changes can also change an object.
  • Run to run differences between some printers of the same model are too large.
  • 3D printed parts may shrink or become more brittle.
  • 3D printed parts often degrade due to UV and other factors.
  • The same file printed on a different machine or material may be different.

What do you think?

Image Karin Neoh,

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