Yet another use for 3D printing: Preserving history

As 3D printing evolves and gains adoption, we see new examples every day of how the technology can be applied in various industries. While 3D printing has been used for many years for rapid prototyping in the manufacturing sector, more recently we’ve seen applications in healthcare, construction, and even agriculture.

Lately, we’ve noticed a new trend – the use of 3D printing to recreate and preserve historical artifacts.

In the case of Ötzi, the Stone Age mummy found in 2001 also known as the “Iceman”, 3D printing allows the public to see an artifact that would otherwise remain locked away in a temperature-controlled vault.

Artist Gary Staab was commissioned by the Dolan DNA Learning Center to create three replicas of the mummy. He used medical CAT scans and 3D printing to create the initial model, then sculpted on top of the model to create the final skin textures.

Because the original mummy is susceptible to temperature, bacteria and other contaminants, it is very difficult to display in public. While the 3D printed models are still valuable, given the 2,000 man-hours of effort to create each one, exhibiting them is much more feasible.

Iceman Reborn, a new NOVA special, shows how Staab and his team went about reproducing Ötzi down to the smallest detail.

Photo: Morehshin Allahyari

In other cases, 3D printing may be used to recreate objects that no longer exist. Iranian artist Morehshin Allahyari did just that in a recent solo exhibition featuring 3D-printed sculptures reproducing artifacts that were destroyed by the terrorist group ISIS.

The exhibit features 12 pieces that the artist recreated based on hours of detailed and painstaking research. In a recent interview with Artsy, Allahyari said, “I’ve been interested in thinking about 3D printers as poetic and practical tools for digital and physical archiving and documenting.”

Allahyari plans to publicly release the STL and OBJ files so that anyone with a 3D printer can download and print the artifacts, further increasing the accessibility of these previously lost treasures.

Photo: Polich Tallix

While not as ancient as the other examples, next week’s Academy Awards ceremony will also leverage 3D printing to preserve its own history.

Over the last several years, the mold used to create the iconic Oscar statuette has slowly deteriorated. Although not likely to be noticed by the casual observer, the result is that Oscar’s features have gradually softened.

To solve this problem, the Academy turned to Pollich Tallix, a fine art foundry located in upstate New York. The company used digital scanning and 3D printing to create a wax replica of the original 1929 version of the statuette. A mold of the wax print was then made and used to make the final awards for presentation to the winners.

All of these cases highlight innovative uses of 3D printing to allow others to enjoy, observe and study historical artifacts. As 3D printing continues to evolve, we’re sure to see many other unexpected and useful applications of the technology.

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