Tuesday, November 19, 2013

3D Printing Brings the Museum to You

3D wooly mammoth now accessible online via Smithsonian's 3D collection.
News/FABrication:: The Smithsonian Museums represent an immense collection of historical treasures drawn both from nature and from human civilization. From dinosaurs and wooly mammoths, to the first airplane and artifacts from extinct civilizations, those lucky enough to visit these museums will see it all. But for those who are unable to go see these collections, there is now a way to bring the collections to them.

The Smithsonian Institute is currently scanning and posting online 3D representations of objects in their collection. Not only that, these models are designed specifically to be examined from all angles online as well as printed out by 3D printers anywhere in the world. 

Lincoln's life mask as seen in the online 3D model browser.
The files are large, the wooly mammoth model I downloaded was 90+ MB. Others are 100 MB or larger. But the level of detail is astonishing. Zooming in on the Wright Flyer shows intricate details on the engine, and the life mask of Abraham Lincoln is crystal clear.

Your computer and 3D printer are transformed into portals accessing the Smithsonian's collections, allowing you to reach through the Internet, and literally pull out items you would like to hold in your hand. This might be why the Smithsonian X 3D website claims it is, "the end of "do not touch."

The process of browsing the Smithsonian 3D collection not only provides a lesson in history, but also one in science and technology, as does the process of printing out objects from the collection. 

The files are downloaded in .STL format, popular for 3D printers. Technically, these can be opened in SketchUp, but the size of the files and the level of detail make this very impractical. For example, a fossilized lower jaw of a Panamanian dolphin is included in the collection and was one of the smallest downloadable .STL files available. It took an entire night to import it into SketchUp, and once there, could not be uploaded to the 3D Warehouse because at 48 MB, it exceeded the 10 MB limit for Warehouse models.

Lower jaw of a fossilized dolphin in the Smithsonian X 3D collection imported as an .STL file into SketchUp 8.

Helios Labs plans on using one of these models to prove just how accessible the Smithsonian collection is, by printing one out on the other side of the world for use in class with students who would otherwise not have the opportunity because of proximity to visit the actual museum.

Smithsonian's website features the process of printing out in 3D Abraham Lincoln's life mask from scans taken of the real item in the Smithsonian collection. Educators around the world now have the ability to print out replicas of museum exhibits for use in class, rendering proximity moot in giving students hands on lessons.

There are already shops selling 3D printers and providing 3D printing services in Thailand, so after we pick which model we would like to print out, we will begin the process of finding a shop to fabricate it. The Smithsonian website features an article regarding the printing out of Lincoln's life mask and a sample lesson plan to be used with it in the classroom.