The Last Lockdown

It’s a disturbing sight. The desk is scratched with graffiti, and a terrified-looking figure cowers underneath – a small girl – with fingers wrapped around one leg of the desk.

The haunting scene is only a statue, but the fear conveyed on the young girl’s face is real. The statistics etched into the surface of the desk say it all: “During the 2017-2018 school year, the US averaged more than one school shooting per week.” “Guns are the third leading cause of death for American children.” “22 kids are shot every day in America.” They go on.

Sean Leonard and a collaborator are the creative duo behind the jarring sculpture. Both senior creatives in the ad industry in Austin, Texas, the two were spurred on by the tragic school shooting in Parkland, Florida to put their advertising skills to work for a good cause.

“We were inspired by the youth who were taking charge and making their voices heard,” recounts one artist. “They were – and still are – desperate for the issue to remain top of mind. Unfortunately, we knew the issue of gun violence against kids and students would fade from the news cycle after a while until it happened again. This project is our way of drawing – and keeping – attention on the issue.”

The piece is in fact more than just one statue: it’s ten, scattered across the country on their September 15th reveal in cities from Irvine to Parkland.

The statues were strategically placed in districts “represented by members of Congress who receive a significant amount of money from the gun lobby,” explains the artist. The timing is no coincidence: it’s back-to-school season and midterm elections will be taking place in just a few weeks.

“We know the gun issue is a sensitive one with strong opinions on both sides and that one stunt or installation won’t solve all our problems,” says the design team, “but we want to engage both sides.”

The idea for the piece came about because they wanted to bring attention to an ugly truth that many prefer not to think or talk about.

“Even for parents, it’s difficult to imagine the drills their sons and daughters are being taught in school,” one of the artists says. “So we wanted people to not just conceptualize it, but really see it and feel it.” The drills alone can be a taxing experience for kids, and, as he puts it, “it’s important for that emotion to be relayed to adults.”

They settled on a sculpture for its interactive nature as well as its realism. “A three-dimensional statue forces you to stop and look at it. It’s tactile – you can go up to it and study it, touch it, interact with it,” says the artistic team.

“Another reason we thought this statue was interesting is because it flips what a traditional statue represents,” he says. “Most statues are celebratory or honorary. This captures a moment that should make you uneasy and your stomach a little unsettled. We wanted that emotive reaction.”

Design & Fabrication of the Statues

With the idea born, the pair began making moves to bring the project to fruition.

“After we came up with the idea, we brought on colleagues who could help us bring it to life,” the artist recounts. Caleb Sawyer was their go-to 3D modeler, and with a CAD sculpture in hand, they began pitching the idea to organizations within the national gun reform movement.

They immediately got a positive response from Manuel Oliver, whose organization Change the Ref works to raise awareness about mass shootings and reduce the influence of the NRA on the Federal level. Oliver’s son was one of the 17 murdered in Parkland.

The pitch also piqued the interest of Giffords, a prominent gun reform organization started by Gabrielle Giffords, the US Representative from Arizona who survived being shot in the head in an assassination attempt as she met with constituents.

The two uniquely-impacted individuals came together to lend their own touch to the project. “Mr. Oliver collaborated with us to refine the design of the statue and led the push to make it a guerrilla-style national launch, and Giffords funded the project and is bringing it to life,” explains the designers.

The actual creation of the statues posed its own set of challenges.

“Our first thought was to do a bronze casting,” says the team. But they quickly discovered that process would be both cost- and time-prohibitive. They looked into other materials, like foam. “What it came down to, ultimately, was what gave us the most realism and what was most cost-effective,” he recounts. “3D printing pretty quickly became the obvious choice.”

They decided on a multimedia approach: they would 3D print the girl and use a real school desk, both finished with a post-processing technique to lend a bronze-casted look to the piece

The perk of using Gigabot for the project is that the girls could be printed all in one go, with no need to affix different sections post-printing. At a height of about two feet, they fit easily within the build volume of the Gigabot XLT. The ten girls were printed in our Houston office and sent to PBE Exhibits where Adam Fontenault handled the post-processing.

“Our main goal throughout this part of the process was realism, from the size of the statue to the look on her face,” the design team says. “We even wanted the faux bronzing to look as realistic as possible. Adam lightly sanded the printed statues and primed them to smooth out any visible print lines. He used a mixture of materials to achieve the lightly-patinated bronze look.”

The result is a statue that looks casted, at a fraction of the price and time it would have taken to go through that process.

“We’re thrilled with the final outcome,” says the team. “She looks very lifelike, and the detail on the print is amazing. The bronze paint brings out additional features and makes the whole statue really pop.”

Prompting Policy Change and Conversation

The installation has gotten some major press following its September debut, making headlines in AdweekThe Washington Post, and CNN, among others. It’s a big step for visibility of the project, whose intent is severalfold.

“The first is to raise awareness of how pervasive the issue of gun violence against children really is and to force people to confront it,” the designers explain. “The second goal is to show how art as activism can be a vehicle for positive change. And the third goal is to educate people and motivate them to demand change.”

It’s a hot-button topic with many complicated layers, but Crumrine and Leonard hope that the installation can break through partisan arguments to the ultimate message: keeping kids in school safe from gun violence.

“Inevitably, this issue is loaded with political baggage,” says the artists. “But we’re hoping this project can at least focus the conversation around how to keep our nation’s children from being innocent victims.”

The idea is to spark policy change as much as it is to spark conversation.

“We hope we get strong reactions from both sides. We want it to be uncomfortable to see because it’s an uncomfortable thing to talk about,” the artists explains. “There will always be people who viscerally accept its message or viscerally reject it. But we want the people in the middle to consider what it’s actually saying.”

And as for the name of the cross-country installation?

“The title of the piece is ‘The Last Lockdown,’ because that’s the ultimate dream outcome,” explains the artists. “We want to help create a world where we’ve already seen the last one, but we’re not naïve enough to think it’ll happen overnight. This is hopefully a step in that direction.”

The Last Lockdown statues can be seen in the following ten cities:

Irvine, California

Parkland, Florida

Sarasota, Florida

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Houston, Texas

St. Paul, Minnesota

Las Vegas, Nevada

Denver, Colorado

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Spokane, Washington

Monumental Sculpture Bronze Casting with Deep in the Heart

It’s a sweltering, sunny July day in the small Texas town of Bastrop, and two men in what appear to be suits that you might wear to descend into a volcano are pouring what looks like lava from a cauldron.

I’m at Deep in the Heart, the largest fine art foundry in Texas, and I’m witnessing a bronze pour.

Clint Howard bought the foundry in 1999 and has grown it from five employees and 1,200 square feet to a team of 34 and about 22,000 square feet. “We’re like a publishing house,” he explains. They work with 165 artists around the world and turn their work into bronze or stainless steel monumental sculpture.

The bronze casting process – called lost-wax casting – is a 5,000+ year old art still being done in the same fashion as it was millennia ago.

“It’s a five generation process,” Clint explains. They start by creating the original sculpture, then making a mold on that sculpture, and then making a wax copy of the sculpture. A ceramic mold is made on the wax copy and flash-fired at 1,700 degrees to melt the wax out – hence the name lost-wax casting. With the wax gone, they’re left with a ceramic vessel that they can pour molten metal into, leaving them with the final sculpture.

Ten years ago, Clint decided that the business needed to start embracing technology.

“At the time, my focus was on 3D laser scanning and CNC milling,” he explains. “We got into the industry by buying a scanner and a huge CNC mill.” They would scan the sculpture and mill it piece by piece out of styrofoam.

“We did a lot of work for a lot of different artists in this technique,” he recounts, but, as he explained, “you still have to sculpt the whole piece full-size.” Clint describes the process as a huge “paint by numbers.” The styrofoam model gives them the outline and where the detail should be, but they still have to do all the fingerprint detail by hand with clay on top of the styrofoam form.

3D printing really wasn’t on their radar, Clint explains, until several years later.

Life Sized Dinosaurs

Clint got the fateful phone call four years ago from a dinosaur museum in Australia with a project proposal. “They wanted us to produce a herd of dinosaurs and they wanted to prove that it could be done all digitally,” Clint recounts.

The sculptures of the dinosaurs had been modeled in CAD, and the museum wanted Deep in the Heart to 3D print them in a material that could be direct-cast, circumventing “a whole lot of steps” in the casting process, in Clint’s words.

“Of course we had no idea what they were talking about or even where to start,” says Clint, “but they had done the research.” The museum had found Gigabot through Kickstarter and thought it would be an ideal fit given the proximity of the re:3D office to the foundry. “They basically said, ‘We want to do this – how many dinosaurs will this much money get us?’”

Deep in the Heart got their first Gigabot and quickly started experimenting how to best integrate 3D prints into their casting process. They ended up with 14 life-size dinosaurs – a nine-foot-tall, 13-foot-long velociraptor chasing a herd of smaller dinos – which now reside outside the Australian Age of Dinosaurs in Queensland, Australia.

The cost-savings of the project using the new 3D printing method were dramatic.

“To get 14 dinosaurs produced and installed for, let’s say, $120,000,” Clint says, “to do that traditionally – to have sculpted them full scale, to have molded them full-scale, and gone through the traditional lost-wax casting – we would’ve gone triple budget.”

"Unforeseen Benefits"

The dinosaur project was four years ago now, and Clint has since added two more Gigabots to their arsenal. “We bought the second one almost immediately and eventually decided we needed a third one,” he recounts.

Deep in the Heart’s specialty is monumental sculpture: their business is making really large pieces of art. “By having three [Gigabots],” Clint explains, “I can be printing three simultaneously, run them 24 hours a day, and it allows us the capacity to move a bigger piece through quicker.” They could do the job with one machine, he explains, but they want to move faster.


The benefits of incorporating 3D prints into their casting process have been unexpected and multitudinous.

“One of the unforeseen benefits of 3D printing that I really didn’t expect in the beginning is the consistency and thickness that we can generate in the computer is far superior to anything that we can do by by hand,” Clint muses.

The traditional method is less precise: pouring molten wax into a mold and pouring it out, or painting liquid wax onto the surface of a mold. “We’re trying to gauge that thickness by experience; which direction the wind’s blowing that day,” Clint remarks. “I mean, we’re trying and we can get fairly close, but we have variances within our thicknesses.”

This means they’re often using more bronze in a sculpture than is actually necessary – yielding costlier pieces – simply because the wax mold is made by the imperfect human hand.

Replace the wax mold with a 3D printed one, and the thickness is now precisely and uniformly set in the computer. “It’s going to be exactly that consistency through every fold, every detail,” says Clint.


“That really allows us to control our costs,” he comments. It also unexpectedly increased the quality of their casting, because with the 3D prints – as opposed to wax molds – “there’s no movement.”

“Wax is innately flexible,” Clint explains. Large sculptures are cast in many different sections – the massive buffalo they’re currently working on will be 30 or 40 separate pieces – and “each of those sections has the potential to warp slightly.” That means they’re often hammering and muscling the different pieces into alignment when it comes to assembling the final sculpture.

“With the 3D prints, they don’t move. At all.” Clint estimates that the assembly time of a monument that’s been 3D printed is about half that of one cast using wax molds.

The Rule of Three

“Most of the time when a commissioning party is asking for a monument to be made, they’re asking it to be a unique one-of-a-kind,” says Clint.

He explains that 99% of large sculptures out there start their life as a maquette – a miniature version of the big one. “That small maquette is where all the design work happens. It’s where all the artistic creativity happens.” The full-size sculpture is then just a mathematical formula of duplicating the miniature.

“Where 3D printing comes into play,” he explains, “is you don’t have to sculpt it big.”

They can take the small model, whether they sculpted it traditionally and then 3D scanned it, or whether they modeled it directly in the computer using CAD software, and they can print that model full-scale. This cuts out multiple parts of the process: they no longer have to sculpt full-scale, rubber mold full-scale, or make a a full-scale wax copy.

“I mean, you can literally just go straight from the printer into the ceramic shell process, and then you can cast.” The PLA material they print with burns out almost identically to wax, he explains.

It’s a huge time, energy, and cost-savings for them as a foundry. And for the artists, as Clint puts it, it allows them to go big faster. “It also allows artists to be more competitive because there’s not all those steps they’re having to pay for.”

Clint describes the cost savings rule of thumb as a “rule of three.” If a certain piece is going to be produced more than three times, “it might be cost-effective to do it the traditional method of actually sculpting the piece full-scale and making a mold on it,” he says.

“But if it’s going to be produced three times or less,” he explains, “the 3D printing route is cheaper.”

Where History and Technology Melt Together

“The cool thing about what we do is there’s always some historical significance,” explains Clint. “There’s always some story. What we’re doing is more than just an object.”

He’s referring specifically to the foundry’s focus at the time of this visit: a piece called The Splash, which is now installed in Dublin, California.

The sculpture pays homage to the role that a natural spring has played in the growth of the city, dating back to a Native American tribe. “The water is a very integral part of the city’s history,” explains Clint. “It’s also a very integral part of the native Americans that still live there, because the whole reason that this area was settled was because of this spring.”

The piece is 150 feet long: a large fluid-looking figure from which seven splashes emanate. Clint walks through the design: a water spirit has skipped a stone, causing these seven splashes. Each splash has a harmonic frequency superimposed into its face, which, Clint explains, is a “very specific part of the story.”

He goes on to recount that in the 1960s or 70s, the only surviving members of the tribe who still spoke the native tongue passed away. The tribe had lost their language.

In the 90s, anthropologists visited the area with wax cylinder recordings taken by anthropologists in the 1910s and 1920s who visited and recorded their language. “Luckily enough,” Clint goes on, “the elders in the community remembered their grandparents speaking the language enough to be able to help the anthropologists pull the language out of all of these recordings.”

Since this visit in the 90s, the tribe has now rediscovered their native language, and the sound waves on the surface of the bronze splashes pay homage to this.

“What we’ve got in all of these splashes is seven generations of members of the tribe saying ‘Thank you’ to the water spirit,” Clint explains. “That harmonic pattern is their voice frequency that was taken by technology, and then visualized in technology, and then superimposed on this sculpted splash in the computer, and then 3D printed so that each one of those splashes has the fingerprint of the voice of a [generation] of this tribe saying thank you.”

The impact of technology is woven throughout the story, from the rediscovery of the tribe’s native language to the creation of the sculpture to commemorate the role of water in the city’s history.

“It’s amazing,” Clint remarks. “Technology allowed it all to be created in the computer. The piece was 100% sculpted in 3D software and the monument has been 100% 3D printed and cast using the technology.”

Blending Old and New

It’s hard not to draw parallels between Clint’s commentary about the future of bronze casting and The Splash piece which his team produced.

The role of technology is steeped in both narratives. It’s been a tool, an enabler, a key to unlock a language and make a commemoration of that feat come to life.

And yet there can be pushback within the industry, resistance to the introduction of new technology that some see as a threat to the art’s centuries-old roots. “It’s a fine line to keep all of the ancient technology and the ancient techniques, and marry them with all this new stuff,” Clint comments.

But the basic process as the industry knows it is not going away, Clint explains.  “We’re still going to have to go through casting the same way,” he says. “What I’m starting to realize in the industry is that the traditional method will probably never die.”

Yes, several steps of the process are replaced by a single 3D print, but the piece still must be sculpted – whether physically or digitally – the bronze still must be poured, the sculpture still assembled and given its artistic hand-touch. The heart of the casting process is still very much there.

“But,” he goes on, “right now, I have probably 6,000 square feet of mold storage. Those molds are susceptible to handling, they’re susceptible to human error, they’re susceptible to just degradation over time.”

He sees a not-so-distance future where molds are obsolete, where a quarter of his floor space suddenly and miraculously becomes free for other use.


“What the technology is leading me to believe is that very shortly, we’re going to have cloud based servers holding 3D files that represent the mold of the part,” he explains. “And now we can make that part any size we want. We can make it a little tiny miniature for a role playing game, or we can make it a 25-foot-tall monument to go in front of a casino in Vegas.” There’s no need to make a new mold for each varying size of a sculpture – it’s all done digitally – and the only storage space being used is on a hard drive.

Clint’s sights are set on the future, on the next generation of bronze casters.

“The artists that that are coming up and the artists that are going to be doing these monuments in 50 years, they’re all sculpting in the computer right now and they’re playing video games right now and they’re going to embrace that technology and that process.”

Clint has a profound respect for the age-old casting tradition, and he’s also a businessman. It’s his forward-thinking vision and willingness to dive into unknown territory that has helped him grow Deep in the Heart over the last nearly two decades.

“It is an amazing shift, and I definitely think that for the art foundries in the country to stay on top of it, they’re going to have to be embracing this technology and watching what’s happening and paying attention to all of these changes.”

Learn more about Deep in the Heart and their work on their website:

Skating on Water Bottles

This post is a follow-up to this one on the Gigabot X pellet printer. If you haven’t checked it out or watched the video, start there!

We know you’ve been dying to know what on Earth our Gigabot X pellet printer prototype was printing in the last update video, so we’re here to deliver!

Without further ado, the reveal.

The slick design was dreamt and drawn up by one of the students working on Gigabot X material validation at Michigan Tech University. Our team was really excited about the idea of printing the board using one of our favorite new materials we’ve been testing: recycled PET.

Giving water bottles a second lease on life as a fun, functional object? As Robert put it, “You know, we had to do it.”

We went through a few trials of the board, snapping a couple of the earlier prints due to the design being a little too thin or not printing it with enough infill. We thickened up the design and increased the infill percentage to make the board a little sturdier, leaving us with a roughly six and a half hour, five pound print.

After popping on some trucks and wheels, re:3D Engineer & Resident Skater Jeric Bautista took the board for a spin behind the Houston office.

Jeric gave the board his stamp of approval. “The skateboard was really fun to use,” he said. “It was smooth to ride and the PET made it nice and springy, which is similar to normal skateboards. Seeing firsthand the functionality of recycled plastic was definitely very cool.”
Keeping plastic bottles out of landfills by giving them a new life as functional objects? That’s something we can roll with.

Gigabot X Update

Hot off the 3D printing press, it's a Gigabot X update!

It’s been about four months since we closed out a successful Kickstarter campaign for our pellet printer, Gigabot X, on April 23rd. Since we last touched base with you, our engineers have been hard at work making improvements to the design for our Kickstarter backer beta testers.
The main focus of the redesign has been the extruder, which has been completely overhauled over the last several months. There’s a new metal extruder body, improved wiring of heaters and the external motor driver, and a redesigned screw for more consistent extrusion.
Some previously 3D printed components within the extruder body were switched to metal for the purpose of durability. Originally printed for ease of testing modifications, our engineers found that some components weren’t lasting as long as they’d like to see due to the tremendous forces being generated within the hopper as the screw extrudes pellets. Now that the design of certain pieces is more final, we started machining certain components in metal to better deal with wear and tear.
The modular, 3D printed hopper has also seen significant changes. With the previous design, our R&D team found that the amount of pellets being pushed through by the screw was much higher than they expected – and wanted. They increased the size of the hopper to slow down the rate, which also provides the dual benefit of not having to replenish the pellets as often.

The first Gigabot X prototype took a trip up to Michigan and is currently residing at Michigan Tech University, where a group of students are performing material testing research as a collaboration supported by our NSF SBIR Phase I. Some of the materials they’ve been validating include PLA, PET, polypropylene, and ABS, in both recycled and virgin forms. One of our favorites we’ve been printing with is recycled PET, better known as the common disposable water bottle.

Michigan Tech has also done us the incredible service of creating improved Slic3r profiles for these materials. The profiles are working fantastically on the new Gigabot X in the Houston office, and we’re seeing improved quality of prints thanks to them. Backers will benefit from these profiles, which have improved the overall printing experience greatly.
Another thing our team is particularly excited about is that the MTU students were also able to 3D print with multiple sized pellets and have also been experimenting with printing directly with ground-up plastics with success. These results were then submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, and we would love to invite the community to check out the research in Materials. You can also share questions and comments with us on the Gigabot X forum by creating an account and logging in.
Testing of Gigabot X is still ongoing and small tweaks continue to be made, but things are moving along well. Over the next three to four months our team will be rounding out testing, cleaning up and finalizing the design and documentation of the machine, and getting the first bots ready for backers. Our team is really excited for the moment that we get to put this technology into the hands of our early adopters.
As re:3D R&D Intern Robert Oakley put it, “I’m really looking forward to seeing what people make with it… It’s really cool to see when people start figuring out how to use our printers to make cool objects that we haven’t thought of before.”
Stay tuned for an upcoming post about what Gigabot X was printing in the video above!

3D Printing Sparking Innovation at Stellar Industries

Have you ever walked by a construction site, looked at a massive piece of equipment that completely dwarves you, and wondered, “How do they change that massive tire if they get a flat?”

Stellar Industries has the answer to that question.

Stellar designs and manufactures hydraulic truck equipment – cranes, hooklifts, tire service, and more – for the construction, mining, and utility industries. In other words, they make the equipment to change those 12-foot-diameter tires, as well as perform a lot of the other service on hulking pieces of industrial machinery. It is interesting that 3D printing could be use to do something as intriguing as this. Luckily there are mark downs for those who are interested in finding computer systems that might be able to help.

A Gargantuan Operation in Garner

Stellar is based in the small Iowa city of Garner, and driving through downtown feels a little like driving through a Stellar Industries ad. Every other building seems to have a Stellar sign on its facade; the employee-owned company employs some 400 people there and sprawls across town.

Hydraulic truck manufacturing is a massive industrial operation that requires a lot of space, and the Stellar warehouses that dot the landscape each contain some portion of the truck-manufacturing process.

There’s the shop section, replete with engineering toys like enormous CNC machines and laser cutters, huge press brake machines that bend pieces of steel like putty, sparks flying from plasma cutting robotic arms and human welders alike. Another gargantuan building houses just the paint portion of the process, where truck bodies receive their coats on a journey along a carwash-esque track. The final stop of the trucks, the assembly building, is where everything comes together and the trucks take shape, workers flitting around the lifted rigs with tool boxes.

In a slightly less hectic area of the assembly building, a large wooden crate on wheels has arrived. It’s Stellar’s second Gigabot.

The Road to 3D Printing

“It was quite a journey.”

Engineering Manager at Stellar Industries Matt Schroeder recounted how they got to the point of having their second in-house 3D printer. “About 5 years ago, we looked at 3D printing, and it was just really expensive and very limited.”

What they were interested in doing was creating tools to help the folks in the assembly portion of the Stellar Industries operation.

“When we first started getting into the 3D printing realm, we needed some assembly fixtures.” Scott Britson is the Assistant Engineering Manager and has been in the Design and Engineering Department for 16 years.

Scott explained that different clients get differently configured trucks: different bodies, different components – sometimes customer-supplied – mounted in unique ways. They wanted to make the assembly team’s job easier in doing these custom setups, so that, as Scott explained, “when we repeat a truck for a customer, they get the same exact truck that they ordered from the first build to the eighth build.”

Stellar had in fact been creating these assembly fixtures themselves pre-3D printer, but their only option was to make them using what was available. Matt recounted, “Before our Gigabot – and before we would even contract out 3D printing – it would be a very intensive process of working either internally or externally with the machine shop to painstakingly make a prototype.”

The fixtures they made were heavy, costly, labor-intensive pieces which also had the negative effect of pulling their machine shop away from actually producing truck components. “We were using aluminum, we were using steel, we were having to machine stuff, we were having to weld stuff,” explained Scott. It was amounting to be too much of a labor, cash, and time sink to produce the tools.

Their attention turned to 3D printing.

“With 3D printing, we knew we could get lightweight, we could go into certain areas and cut places out of the part that we needed to go around,” Scott explained. “It’s a lot easier than sending it to our machine shop.”

They began by outsourcing their 3D print jobs to third party service bureaus, but they reached a stopping point where they were getting quoted longer and longer lead times. “We realized,” Matt recounted, “this is a core competency we need to develop in order to be able to have faster response times and control our own destiny.”

Thus began the hunt for a 3D printer of their own.

A Big Machine for Big Manufacturing

“When we looked at 3D printers a few years ago, you were limited by the 8 x 10s, the smaller, more toy things that sit on your computer desk,” Scott explained, “which really didn’t fit our needs.”

Stellar manufactures big, industrial equipment to service even bigger industrial equipment. They needed something to match that. “We needed to go to something that we could build bigger things, bigger fixtures for the types of trucks that we build,” said Scott.

Stellar prioritized a few important features to them: first on the list was size. Another deciding factor, Scott explained, was “the ability to upfit your 3D printer to the newest advancements and not be stuck at a version one, version two, version three.” They wanted something that could evolve with them and stay current with advancements in the industry without them having to buy an entirely new machine. And lastly, they were looking for a company that would come in and teach them, to help make their team 3D printer-literate.

“That’s where Gigabot came into our eyes as the clear leader,” said Scott.

“Right around the first of the year, we received our first Gigabot,” Matt recounted, “and we immediately put it to work that day, printing some prototype parts and things that were in a backlog that we really needed to get a project back on task.”

They completed most of that work in about two to three weeks, explained Matt, and then an interesting phenomenon occurred. People from other departments got wind of the new toy at the office and started coming by to check it out.

Igniting Innovation

“It’s kind of a piece that everybody wants to come up and see, everybody wants to take a look,” said Scott, of their Gigabot.

It didn’t take long before projects that weren’t originally on Stellar’s radar began springing up.

Scott recounted, “We’ve had our assembly department come up to the Gigabot and say, ‘Hey, you’re doing that part, do you think we can get something like that for this?'” The Stellar engineering department works to draws up the idea in CAD and print out the design on their Gigabot. Within a matter of days, they can have the part in their hands.

The increased creativity and innovation sparked by the in-house 3D printer, as both Scott and Matt described, is palpable.

The whole Stellar team is, as Scott explained, “constantly thinking of new ideas and new things to help them improve their throughput.” As Matt put it, “Once we brought [Gigabot] in, it excited people’s ability to think outside the box; it got people thinking about innovation in ways that we originally we weren’t intending.”

Their Gigabot was suddenly awash in a steady stream of projects coming from all angles.

“Things that we wouldn’t have initially thought of,” Matt explained, “like, go/no go quality tools.” A common misconception about 3D printers – that they’re really only for prototyping – was quickly dispelled once Stellar got their hands on their Gigabot.

“I think something that was very eye-opening to me is the range of materials that we could print,” Matt mused.

“I was of the mindset that we could just print something in PLA and it was just this hard plastic proof-of-concept,” he explained, “but we’re printing very tough and durable materials, we’re printing things that can bend and stretch and flex. We’re printing gaskets. Things like that are not what we had originally envisioned, but we’re leveraging those now. Being able to print those large varieties of materials is really helping us.”

In Stellar’s weld shop are large 3D printed tack fixtures used for cranes. These fixtures are 70-85% cheaper than traditional metal fixturing, and let them keep their production equipment focused on end-product parts. 3D printing them also allows Stellar to keep their lead times down; depending on the size of the part, they are often able to deliver fixtures or tooling with just 24 hours’ notice.

Also in the welding area is an assortment of colorful, 3D printed rings used to designate the holes used for specific tool models. Using the 3D printed collars allows them to match the collars with any additional plastic parts, and are much more durable than denoting them with markings in paint or tape.

Their maintenance department has taken a liking to the new 3D printer, finding ways to cut costs on expensive replacements. “We had a small component for a paint system that was several hundred dollars to replace, and you had to buy the entire kit to do so,” Matt recounted. “We were able to look at the small part, we created it in 3D and printed it over that night, and they were up and going the next day. So it was very fast and it was very economical.”

And, of course, there are the assembly jigs and fixtures that originally spurred the Gigabot purchase in the first place. The lightweight, low-cost 3D printed pieces are night and day compared to their first-generation, machine-milled and welded metal brethren, and they’re helping the Stellar assembly team become more efficient and effective with custom truck builds.

“We’re able to keep spacing on parts, we’re able to drill new holes in the fixtures for the mounting,” Scott explained. “We’re able to do a lot more for our shop to make it more consistent – they’re not having to get the tape measure out and make sure they’re not getting mis-measurements. They have the fixtures there so that they’re getting the exact location that they need.”

Stellar’s mind has been firmly changed since their original belief that 3D printing was solely a prototyping tool. Matt mused, “I think there is going to come a tipping point where we will produce more and more production parts on our machines versus prototyping parts.”

Bringing in Backup

“I don’t think in the beginning we knew that we would be running the Gigabot nonstop,” said Scott.

“From the day that we got it to about 45 days down the road, that thing was running 40 days, day and night,” he recalled. “The only time that it was down was because…we didn’t have it running through the weekend, or we were letting the bed cool to pull the prints off the Gigabot.”

Matt also recounted the early days, ping-ponging between projects they originally intended for their bot and new unexpected ones that came out of left field. The two angles kept their machine plenty busy. “In short, we were able to keep the machine running non-stop for about six months,” he said. “There were just a couple of times for some minimal preventative maintenance that we had the machine down, and it’s still running around the clock today.”

“In fact,” Matt continues, “we have been so busy we’ve had to get a second machine going.”

In the quiet side room off the main assembly floor, they pry the wooden boards of the crate apart with the excitement of kids opening up a new toy, unveiling Stellar Gigabot number two.

Within minutes of getting it uncrated and into the office, it’s already begun printing.

Learn more about Stellar Industries on their website:

The Mannequin Challenge

The Greneker office strikes me as a place you wouldn’t want to be stuck wandering at night, what with the bodies lurking around each corner. I scheduled my visit for early afternoon.

Greneker is a mannequin manufacturer based in Los Angeles, California. They’ve worked to stay cutting-edge in their industry since they started in 1934, always keeping pace with the latest groundbreaking materials and manufacturing methods, like moving from plaster to fiberglass around World War II.

They’re proving that even an entrenched player in the game isn’t too old to learn new tricks: their latest foray is into the worlds of digital and 3D printing.

Steve Beckman is President & COO at Greneker, and he’s been a part of the evolution of the company over the last 2+ decades as they’ve set themselves apart in their industry.

When I started with this business, we would get together as a group, we would look at the trends in the marketplace, and we would develop a line based on what we saw happening in the marketplace at that time.” It was a big gamble – the process was both costly and time-intensive – but that was just business as usual for them. “That was done with clay sculpting, so we would start with armatures and clay, go through the process ourselves, create an entire line of mannequins, and really just kind of rolled the dice and hope that it would sell to that market.”

Whereas they began by working independently from apparel manufacturers, Greneker found themselves doing more and more custom work for specific clients. They found their niches in the athletic wear and plus size markets, and working with big-name clients like Under Armour and Adidas in the clay design process provided its own set of challenges.

“It was a very long process to develop a line of custom mannequins,” Steve explains. “We would have to spend a great deal of time upfront with a client trying to figure out what they were looking for, what the poses were, what the dimensions were, what sizes these pieces were. The armatures would be set up by hand, the sculpting would be done by hand in clay. It would require several visits of the client on premises before we got an approval to move into the molding process to begin production.”

When working with athletic apparel clients, the challenges multiplied. As they started to get into sports-specific activities, posing came to be of utmost importance. “The poses are either accurate or they’re inaccurate,” Steve says. “If you try and put a golf mannequin in a golf shop and he is not in the proper position, the mannequin will be ripped apart by patrons.”

If you want to talk with someone about whether Greneker is in fact a creepy place to be stuck at night, Daniel Stocks is your man. As Senior Sculptor at Greneker – or Sculptor Extraordinaire, as Steve tended to refer to him – he’s the one responsible for following through on all those client requests.

“A lot of the time I would work late at night making all these adjustments and changes while the people are in town so that they [could] see it the next day,” Daniel recounts. And that was after starting from scratch on the figure: constructing a metal armature and building up the clay by hand.

True to their trailblazing past, Greneker began searching for ways to update their process and make themselves more efficient.

“We started to look at digital as a way of creating these pieces, and creating them precisely and accurately,” Steve recounts. “We’ve now moved from clay sculpting to everything being 3D printed, which has helped us in a myriad of ways.”

The 3D Printed Mannequin Challenge

Greneker dipped their toe into 3D printing with a smaller-scale CubeX and quickly realized the potential of the technology.

“We felt as a company that this was the direction that we needed to take, and we needed to go full steam ahead before some of our competitors became aware of the technology and started utilizing it,” Steve shares. They wanted to gain the competitive advantage before others caught wind of what they were doing. “And that’s one of the things we have done, we’ve positioned ourselves as the experts in this type of mannequin design.”

They purchased a few other small 3D printers, and then Daniel began the hunt for a large-scale printer with the right price tag. He came across Gigabot.

“Well, there was really nothing else on the market within a reasonable price point that would make pieces big enough for a full body,” Daniel muses.

“We selected the printer based on, again, the human body,” Steve explains. “We’re a mannequin manufacturer. We wanted larger printers to be able to print torsos and legs.” Their 3D printer arsenal includes a range of machines, from small-scale printers good for the details on hands and faces, up to the large size of Gigabot for cranking out large pieces.

“The challenge for us and my challenge to Daniel was to get a full-sized mannequin printed in one day,” Steve smiles. “It takes about 250 hours of print time to print a mannequin. In order to print it in one day, it was going to take a bunch of machines.”

Take a stroll through their office and you’ll come across the realization of this dream: a separate room tucked within their main sculpting area which they built specifically for 3D printing. “The Gigabots work fantastic for large-sized pieces, so we bought a bunch of them,” Steve recounts. Greneker is now up to four Gigabots – stacked two-by-two and suspended from the ceiling – which they house in this room along with their smaller-scale machines so they can run 24 hours a day.

“Before 3D printing, it would’ve been just unthinkable to make a mannequin in a day,” Daniel muses. “Now it’s actually possible.”

“A Myriad of Benefits”

Steve explained that the benefits that came with moving from clay design to digital and 3D printing have been numerous. The biggest savings may be from a time standpoint – they’re cutting from every aspect of the preproduction process.

“We save time throughout the entire process,” he shares.

Because everything is now digital, they no longer have to bring clients in to see mock-ups in person during the design process. “Instead of having clients visit, we can have video conferencing now, which accelerates the initial consultation period greatly,” Steve explains. “The client can sit on the other end – whether they’re across the country or across the world – and in real time we can make those changes and those tweaks to make these pieces exactly what they’re looking for.”

Daniel is particularly happy about this aspect as well. He still sometimes has to work on a time crunch, he explains, but “it’s less physical and it allows a lot more flexibility,” he explains. “If I have to, I can work from home on the computer and makes adjustments. It’s a lot quicker.”

“What,” you may ask, “does he mean by ‘physical?’” Miniature, scaled-down models of a mannequin to show clients weren’t possible before 3D printing, because the mini and full-scale versions can differ so much when working by hand in clay. So, as Steve recounts, the sculptors had to work in full-size clay as they went through the tweaking process, often while the clients were there in person. He explains, “We would bring the client in and then the sculptors would wrestle with the clay in front of the client until we got it to where it needed to be.”

No more mannequin manhandling. “With 3D printing, we take the digital model and we’ll produce a scaled model, usually about 18 inches tall, and then we can send that to the clients,” says Steve. “They can make sure that all the measurements fit where they like and that the posing is what it needs to be in. Once we get the sign-off at that point, then we produce a full-scale 3D print.”

Greneker will print a full-size version of the mannequin, which, with a little sanding and painting, will function exactly like the final mannequin, albeit not in the final material. That gets shipped to the client where the stakeholders can review the piece exactly as it will look in production.

This is immensely helpful for another portion of the process: the sign-offs. In the past, Greneker had struggled to get all of a client’s decision-makers in the room at once. “We would have a group of people come visit us that may or may not represent all of the stakeholders involved in the development,” Steve explains. “Ultimately, whatever approvals or opinions we received at that point could be superseded by someone else that hadn’t been here.”

That frustrating portion of the process is completely removed now. “With this new process,” Steve says, “the model goes in front of everybody, so it’s there for everyone to look at. You get a much, much tighter buy-in much more quickly.”

And of course, in the actual design process itself, the digital realm has also proven itself to be a clear winner over clay. “If you do something in clay, you do it by hand,” says Steve. “You can’t necessarily repeat that.”

No one is likely a bigger fan than Daniel. “It opens up a lot of new tools,” he explains. When designing a head, for example, he can take advantage of the symmetry tool in CAD. The work he’s done on one side of a face is automatically mirrored to the other. “Before, working in clay, we would have to try to make adjustments – ‘Which ear is higher? Are the eyes straight?’ Things like that it makes much simpler.”

It also aids with consistency and continuity if different sculptors are working on the same body. “If I have a large project and I have three sculptors working on it, because it’s three sets of hands, it may not look identical,” Steve explains. “With the digital design, we don’t have to worry about that. The design is the design and you can move it, change it, scale it, but it’s always the base design and it’s always obvious what it is, no question.”

The slashing of time from every part of the preproduction process goes hand-in-hand with cost-cutting. “Internally for the business, the change has been much more cost-effective,” Steve shares. “When I started, we would create lines based on – when it’s all said and done – it’s spaghetti on the wall. It’s our best guess of what was going to sell. We don’t have to do that any longer.”

That gamble used to be a risky one.

“When we did it in clay, you had to commit to it. Clay’s only got a very limited shelf life,” Steve explains. With CAD replacing clay at Greneker, there’s no more wasted effort and materials going into a design that doesn’t sell. Now, Steve says, “We can put a design that we think is cool together digitally and it can sit there as a model until there’s a market and a place for it.”

An Industry in Flux

“The apparel retail industry is in a great deal of flux right now,” Steve explains. “Online sales have really started to affect their brick and mortar sales. I don’t foresee some of the large scale roll-outs in malls in the near future, but what we do see is the need for smaller runs of more specific posing.”

And this – thanks to their calculated research and work – is where Greneker excels.

“What we see going forward is we need to be much more nimble, much faster, and much more cost-effective on the development side so that the retailers can afford to bring in specific mannequins for specific markets,” says Steve.

Greneker’s hard work to modernize and streamline their mannequin production process has paid off. “The marketplace is requiring speed to market. Everything has got to be done sooner rather than later,” Steve explains. “When we would sculpt and create a new line by hand, the process could take upwards of six months in preproduction. In 3D printing, now we’ve reduced that process to where it can be as short as just a few weeks.”

The tedious parts of their old process -the gambles on trends, the risk of botched posing, building up new armatures and clay bodies by hand, the endless on-site client visits to make tweaks and get approval – all of that is now off their plate.

“Right now, we’ve just finished realizing our first set of goals with 3D printing,” says Steve. “Our future goals: we’re going to bring in as many printers as it takes to be the absolute fastest to market as we can be. We want to stay ahead of our competition.”

Learn more about Greneker:


Introducing Gigabox

Introducing Gigabox, a full enclosure for your Gigabot 3D printer.

Gigabox is designed to elevate and stabilize the ambient printing temperature of your Gigabot, allowing for large-scale, high-quality printing in high-temperature materials like ABS, nylon, and polycarbonate. Your Gigabox enclosure also serves to protect your Gigabot from the dust and dirt so that it feels just at home on the factory floor as the office environment.

Constructed of transparent, shatter-resistant polycarbonate, Gigabox allows your bot to reach an internal temperature of up to 60°C. Three removable hood panels allow for easy access to the top of the machine, with polycarbonate printed holders at the base of the enclosure to store the hood side panels when not in use. The large front panel is fitted with plastic living hinges which allow it to fold down for convenient access to the interior. Polycarbonate printed handles allow for easy maneuvering of panels, and sixty-four neodymium magnets snap and hold them securely into place.

Gigabox can be installed onto the GB3+ as well as the previous-generation GB3. We recommend setting aside at least four to eight hours to complete the installation.

Order now in our online store or email for a quote.

The Library Makerspace

There are four videos throughout this post – scroll through to watch the full story.

If you ever find yourself driving through the Clear Lake City community of Houston, keep your eyes open for an interesting McDonalds. Looming in the sky on East NASA Parkway next to the golden arches is a giant astronaut, advertising the “Play Space” area of the space-themed establishment.


It’s commonplace in the neighborhood, which is infused with the culture of a local celebrity, the NASA Johnson Space Center. NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center is down the street from another couple of locations which you may be familiar with: the re:3D Houston HQ, and the subject of today’s story: the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

It’s only fitting given the local climate that this library would be an innovator in its space. Walk upstairs and you’ll find an unexpected surprise nestled among the bookshelves on the second floor: a makerspace.

The library has found itself among the first of its kind leading the charge to reinvent the literary institutions as a hub for community creators to access cutting-edge technology. Named the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab, the space was made possible thanks to an extremely generous individual donation.

Jim Johnson was the Branch Manager of the library during the shooting of this story last year, and and now works at Harris County Public Library’s administrative offices.  “It started all the way back when we received a notice about a bequest received from Mr. Jocelyn H. Lee in 2013, and actually found out exactly how much he was giving us in 2014,” he explains.

Photo credit: HCPL

The sizable sum allowed them to put plans in place to purchase equipment and cordon off an area for the lab. They officially opened the doors to the makerspace in February 2015. The lab boasts a variety of equipment, from a CNC to laser cutter, soldering stations to dremel tools, Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, and of course, 3D printers – the largest being a Gigabot. “3D printing tends to be a cornerstone feature of the lab,” says Jim.

All the equipment and classes offered by the lab are free of charge to the community.

Photo credit: HCPL

“With us being based in the Houston area and right near NASA, we’ve got obviously a lot of engineers in the area, and a lot of engineers’ kids,” Jim explains. “This space tends to focus on STEM activities: science, technology, engineering, and math.”

Some of the groups taking advantage of the lab are local robotics teams and home-schooled groups of students. One such group is FTC 8668: Error 404, Team Name Not Found, a local FIRST Tech Challenge robotics team comprised of high school home-schooled boys.

Error 404 Coach Clarissa Belbas saw a big opportunity in the lab’s capabilities, and in a true demonstration of “mothers always know best,” urged the team to consider incorporating 3D printing into the design of their robot. “At the end of last season, I kept saying, ‘Guys, there’s this Gigabot at the library. We could print the whole chassis in one piece!'”

The boys didn’t bite, protesting that the printed version wouldn’t be strong enough, so Clarissa took matters into her own hands. She visited the lab on her own, using Gigabot to print out a small, proof-of-concept of their robot’s chassis to show the team. They were sold.

“There haven’t been any other teams that we have seen that have had their robot completely 3D printed,” says Nick, a programmer on the Error 404 team. “Having a 3D printed robot and a good engineering log helps to make us stand out to the judges.”

It’s also proven to be quite the teaching tool. “For me the point was educational,” explains Clarissa. “Because that’s the way that it is in the real world: you truly design something before you manufacture it.” Forced to flesh out a part on the computer through CAD before printing, the team learned the lessons of design cycles, prototyping, and manufacturing.

Having access to a large-scale 3D printer has been crucial to the team’s robot design.

“Our first year as a FIRST Tech Challenge team, we had a really small 3D printer that we got as a grant; only had like a five inch by five inch by eight inch print area – absolutely tiny,” recounts Nick. “When we saw the Gigabot here at the library, that’s when we had the idea of printing out our entire chassis, because we’d be able to make it all in one piece, and that made it a bit more structurally sound.”

In addition to strength, the 3D printed chassis affords them more mounting opportunities for their robotics challenges, a more compact electronics section, and a far cheaper alternative to the aluminum they’re typically forced to buy for competitions. Clarissa explained that where one small piece of aluminum channel may run them $15 – “You don’t know how much you put into this” – they can get several iterations of their entire chassis out of a $30-40 roll of PETG. 

While Error 404 is currently leading the pack in 3D printed robots, Clarissa sees things trending in this direction. “There have been a lot of teams that have come and said, ‘Wow, that’s a really great idea. We want to do that.'” The only issue, she explains, is printer size. “A lot of teams say, ‘Well, our printer isn’t that big,’ and ‘Where did you get a printer that big?’ A lot of people don’t have access to a Gigabot.”

That’s something that the library is trying to change.

“We’ve got small business entrepreneurs who use this space, inventors, we have International Science Fairs winners who’ve come through here…many, many different kinds of projects that take place in this space,” Jim muses. “We really want it to be a space for the community and for them to sort of define what they want it to be.”

Another group making themselves comfortable in the lab is the FLL Thunderbolts #17355 robotics team.

This home-schooled FIRST LEGO League robotics team has also been taking advantage of the lab’s 3D printing capabilities for their robot, which is unusual for their division. “Not a lot of teams 3D print at this level,” explains Thunderbolts team member Tyler. “We thought we’d probably stand out a lot.”

And stand out they have. “This is only our second year as a robotics team and we’re going to World,” says teammate Israel. The FIRST World Championship is the culmination of the FIRST LEGO League, FIRST Tech Challenge, and FIRST Robotics Competition. “It’s the best of the best,” explains Nick from Error 404.

The Thunderbolts’ challenge was to design a product for animal-human or animal-animal relationships. They chose the problem of multi-dog families where a dominant dog eats the others’ food. Underwhelmed by the solutions available on the market, the team designed The Thunderbowl, a food bowl that opens and closes based on a bluetooth tag attached to a dog’s collar. Multiple types of food can even be enclosed in the same bowl, revealed in different compartments depending on the tag sensed.

The team started their prototyping process with paper plates, then moved to LEGOs, and finally graduated to 3D printing. In addition to helping them stand out among the competition, the 3D printed model is welcomed by many of the teammates for its durability.

“When our Thunderbowl was just a prototype in LEGOs, our job was to fix it whenever it broke, because it broke quite a bit,” says Abigail, another Thunderbolts team member. “That’s what I love about the 3D printing is it doesn’t break.”

Thunderbolts Coach Kris Lee admires the power of 3D printing to enable the kids to turn ideas in their heads into tangible objects. “We teach them the skills of CAD…and all of a sudden that idea is real,” he muses. “It goes from an idea to in their hands. That’s something I didn’t have when I was a kid.”

Jim also found continued wonderment in the projects that came out of the library’s lab through the years he worked there. “I’ve been amazed at a lot of the things that have come out of this space,” he says. “I am not an engineer myself, and one of the things I was looking forward to most about this space was seeing what people were going to do, because my imagination was very limited.”

Imagination now abounds on the second floor of the library. “There are ideas and plans in the works to expand the space due to the amount of usage it’s received over the last two years,” he reveals. “The sky is the limit.”

A fitting attitude for the NASA-neighborhood library.


Learn more about the Jocelyn H. Lee lab here.

See more photos courtesy of the Harris County Public Library here.

Learn more about the Error 404 Robotics Team here.

Learn more about the Thunderbolts Robotics Team here.

Meet: Andrew

All new re:3D employees and interns are faced with the same question at our Houston office: “Have you met Andrew yet?”

If you haven’t, you’re in for a ride. Andrew Jicha is the man behind the machines, the owner of the hands that put together the lion’s share of the fully-assembled Gigabots that leave our office, and he’s nothing short of an absolute character.

Words don’t do him justice, so we got him on camera to tell you about what he does and where he came from (most likely another planet).

Without further ado, Andrew.

Prehistoric Preservation: 3D Printing Dinosaur Bones at SWAU

A Hidden Gem in Keene

The drive from Dallas to Keene is bucolic in a quintessential Texas kind of way – scenery of grassy fields broken up by farmhouses.

Keene is a small town, home to Southwestern Adventist University. The campus is still calm when I arrive, meandering my way to the building that’s brought me here – something that feels almost like a bit of a secret.

It is only once I round the corner of the building that the hidden gem reveals itself, and I suddenly find myself peering over the edge of a railing, where, sitting in a sunken courtyard below me is a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex.

This humble building is the SWAU Dinosaur Science Museum and Research Center, and it’s home to more than 20,000 dinosaur bones. It’s an impressive number when you consider the ratio of bones to students – roughly 25:1, with just under 800 undergraduates enrolled at the university.

A Whale of a Project

Art Chadwick is the director of the center and the driving force behind SWAU’s dinosaur research. He was the head of the university’s Biology department for a number years, and also taught courses in Geology and Paleontology. Shockingly enough, he wasn’t always so keen on the research of the prehistoric beasts.

“Well, I really wasn’t interested in dinosaurs at all,” he admits.

“I was working on the taphonomy of fossil whales down in Peru.” A taphonomist, he explains, is someone who studies everything that happens to a fossil from the time it’s alive until it’s excavated from the ground. It covers behavior, what the creature was doing when it died, cause of death, and the subsequent fossilization process. All skills that, fortuitously enough, are easily transferrable from whales to the dinosaur realm.

Art had been working in South America on the whales for several years when he got a call from a friend asking if he’d be interested in checking out some dinosaur bones. A call that, no doubt, most of us would drop everything to answer.

But Art wasn't so easily convinced

“I really wasn’t very interested at first,” he recalls, “because I had plenty to do, and dinosaurs had no particular attraction to me.” Nonetheless, his friend persuaded him to come check out the site, a ranch in Wyoming.


“The ranch owner took me out onto his property, and he drove his pickup up onto a butte, stopped, and told us to get out,” Art recounts. But when Art went to exit the truck, he found he couldn’t stand on the ground. “It was covered with dinosaur bones.”

So although he wasn’t originally compelled by the taphonomy to study dinosaurs, Art couldn’t help himself. “I know we’re not making any more of those data, and every year these bones are being washed away and lost to science,” he mused. “So I committed myself to spending some of my time trying to preserve these remains and save them for posterity. This meant that I would have to do science at its best.”

Fossil Excavation

Art brought on equipment that’s normally used in surveying: “High resolution GPS, RTK. And we started mapping our bones with that in the year 2000.” They have high-resolution GPS data for every bone that they take out of the ground.

And therein lies one of the most impressive parts of the SWAU Dinosaur Research Lab. To the layperson – me, for example – the impressive part is being surrounded by thousands upon thousands of prehistoric items that used to be inside dinosaurs. But to a scientist, SWAU’s real gem are their data.

“There are a number of universities that have bigger collections of dinosaur bones,” Art explains. “But they don’t have the data associated with bones that we do…The thing that we have that’s unique is information.”

Once someone in one of the Wyoming dig sites – called quarries – hits a bone, the team works to excavate the specimen as carefully as possible. Once it’s exposed enough to where the dimensions are visible, they bring in the GPS to take measurements and photographs.

The bones are then shipped back to Keene where they’re cleaned – I watched a girl use what looked like a dental drill to carefully remove dirt – and then photographed. In one corner of their photo lab is a circular table upon which the specimens are placed. The table rotates 360 degrees, during which time 32 photographs are automatically taken. They turn these images into virtual 3D images as well as 3D models and STL files.

All of this information – the bone catalogues, the maps and GPS data of the bones in the ground, photos, 3D images, and STL files – is all available on the Dinosaur Museum’s website. Simply enter a keyword – Triceratops, for example – and you’ll be treated to dozens of listings of bones and teeth with corresponding data for each specimen. “There’s a lot of information available to anyone that wants to do research on these bones,” Art says.

I say that’s an understatement. This is an almost indescribable treasure trove of scientific data, collected and amassed by an unassuming university off the beaten path in Texas.

The Thescelosaurus Discovery

Within the last several years, 3D printing started to pop up on Art’s radar. “We began to realize that we needed that for our project,” he recalls. “We needed to be able to print bones so that we could re­construct some of the animals that we’re finding, especially as we began to find whole animals.”

One dinosaur discovery in particular finally pushed the museum over the edge.

“Two years ago, we found a more or less intact Thescelosaurus.” A Thescelosaurus is a plant-eating, slightly-larger-than-human-sized dinosaur. “That was a big breakthrough for us,” Art recounts.

But when it came to displaying the skeleton in the museum, they quickly found that assembling the whole thing would have been destructive – they would have lost bone in order to make the armature to hold the specimen.  

“That seemed like an ideal time for us to begin to operate in 3D printing,” he says. “And that’s where the Gigabot came in.”

Art found his way to Gigabot because, as he explained, “That’s the biggest printer that we could get.” They wanted the ability to print larger bones without having to break them into many smaller pieces, as they would be forced to do for larger specimens on a machine with a smaller build volume.

The university brought their Gigabot home (Art came to our Houston factory to pick up the machine himself, which was a treat for both parties. “The fact that they’re all real human beings, they’re interesting and it was just delightful to me,” he added.) and promptly kicked off a massive print.

“Of course, the first thing we printed was two giant jaws of a Triceratops, which took 47 hours,” Art chuckles. “That was a major feat of an out-of-the-box machine.”

And of course, there was the original impetus for the Gigabot purchase: the Thescelosaurus. “We kept it busy, day and night, for a long time, printing out all those bones,” Art says, of Gigabot. “Several hundred hours for the whole print,” he estimates.

The full, 3D printed specimen stands on display in their museum.

Old-School vs High-Tech

Traditionally, museums accomplish the replication of specimens like dinosaur bones with casting. And although tried and true, this technique has its faults.  To name a few, it’s expensive, time-intensive, messy, and potentially damaging to very fragile specimens. It also falls short when there’s a missing bone.

“The thing that 3D printing can do is enable you to replace lost pieces or missing pieces,” Art explains. “If we have a left femur, for example, we don’t have a right, we can just mirror the left femur and make a right.”

And while casting will get you a really good replication of a bone, Art finds that he actually prefers the 3D prints to conventional casting.

“I have found that I prefer the not-perfect-printing to having a perfect replication anyway,” he says. “If I made every vertebra the same using a casting technique, it would be very obvious on the specimen. But with 3D printing, there’s enough variation in the surface so that we can get every bone looking different.” As they would be on a real animal.

There’s also the topic of money.

“One-­off casting is very expensive,” Art explains, “whereas 3D printing is nickels and dimes. So you could 3D print an image for a dollar, but it might take you $50 worth of materials to make a mold for that object.” He points to a massive triceratops skull, dripping with a shiny pink material. “There’s $250 worth of latex on that specimen right there.”

“Science has to be open.”

The vast amount of data SWAU has accumulated on their dinosaur findings was Art’s goal from the start. “Science has to be open,” he says. “Sharing information is what it’s all about.”

And for Art, the advent of 3D printing is a windfall for science. “To me, 3D printing is opening a whole new avenue of sharing information, which is what science is all about,” he says. “If you’re not sharing information, you’re not doing science.”

His team shares what they’ve discovered – the GPS data, the maps, the images, the STL files – in the hopes of helping someone else with their research or encouraging someone who’s interested in dinosaurs.

“It’s for the general good and advancement of knowledge to share information with your fellow researchers,” he says. “If you find something or you have something – especially these things like STL files of bones – the best thing in the world you can do is to share it, so that other people can access it,” he explains. “Not just for paleontology but for biology in general, 3D printers are a boon.”

The proliferation of the technology aids their mission with the general public as well.

“We share the 3D images so that anybody  in the world that wants to print a vertebra of a Thescelosaurus can download it and print it,” he explains. “People that like dinosaurs can now print parts of dinosaurs that they’re really interested in, and this will increase interest in science, and I think will contribute to the dissemination of information.”

Inspiring Future Scientists

Southwestern Adventist’s dinosaur digs and research are ongoing, and there’s still plenty of work to do.

They’ve accumulated their 20,000+ bones over the last 20+ years working in Wyoming, and each year they return and bring back another 1,000 or so bones. They’re coming back with Edmontosaurus – duck­billed dinosaurs that are 30 to 40 foot long (“A giant of an animal.”), Oviraptor bones, massive Triceratops skulls (just its head is seven feet long and weighs about 500 pounds), Nanotyrannus (they dug up the second specimen ever found), and Tyrannosaurus Rex (“Of course everybody’s favorites are T­-Rex teeth. If you find a T-­Rex tooth, you found something really big.”).

The bones that once littered the ground when Art first visited the ranch are being preserved, catalogued, and studied in the name of science.

One of the questions they’re trying to answer is, with a bone bed spread over 50 acres, made up of scattered bones of dinosaurs, how do you get all these bones separated from one another and then deposited in a single layer? And why are they finding a lot of whole animals in one site, but only disarticulated remains in another site?

Piecing together the story of what they see in the field is the name of the game.

And while they do research to answer our most burning prehistoric questions, they also seek to inspire a whole new generation of scientists. “Our museum we set up deliberately to tell a story. We want to encourage people to be interested in science. That’s our main goal.”