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.” 

Reconstructing Aircraft Using 3D Printing

 Taking Flight with an Idea

“I thought about this for about a year and a half before I finally pulled the trigger.”

Ben Gimbert was an airplane mechanic for 32 years before he got a Gigabot and jumped into his next career foray.

“I went to a government boneyard out in Arizona where they have whole decommissioned airplanes; I wanted to collect ejection seats and flight sticks. That’s how this whole thing got started.”

The particular site that Ben went to is AMARG, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group. It’s an incredible space to look at photos of – rows upon rows of neatly arranged airplanes that look like toys organized by an obsessive-compulsive child. The facility typically has around 4,200 aircraft onsite at a time.

“They’ve got airplanes, helicopters, missiles… Once the planes are deemed for destruction, they’re sent to the smelter across the street,” Ben explains. “It’s kind of like watching your favorite sports car get chewed up.”

Ben isn’t the only one who feels this way. There are groups of aviation fanatics who snag portions of planes – or entire aircraft – before they meet their fiery demise. And this is where Ben saw his opportunity.

 

Giving Wings to a New Career Path

“There’s a gentleman up in Rochester, New York who has an Egress cockpit simulator, primarily used to train pilots how to eject from an F-4. His was the worst of the worst – it had stuff pulled out and cut off of it. He was missing some key parts for the ejection seats in the cockpit.”

Ben explained that this gentleman’s options for the reparations were limited. “Ejection seats from that era had analog mechanical timers on them; they’re more complicated. There were timers and brackets that he didn’t have on his seat.”

The only option was to find another complete seat from which he could pull parts, something that was going to be difficult and costly – “in the thousands of dollars” – for just a handful of parts.

Ben just so happened to have one of these seats, so, using his as a reference, he modeled all the necessary parts in CAD and started printing them out on his Gigabot.

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The ejection seat Ben reproduced parts from

“I double checked the fit on my seats and sent the parts over to him,” Ben recounted. “He was just tickled to death that this machine could make parts like this.”

Ben continues to use his Gigabot to help out fellow aircraft enthusiasts recreate cockpits, printing parts for ejection seats, gun sights, and static scopes.

F-4 Phantom cockpit which includes a scope Ben reproduced

It’s a whole niche market, he explains. “There are people who have cockpits they use for photoshoots. They have the flight suits and helmets, and at air shows they’ll dress you up and take a photo of you in the cockpit.”

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Ben’s F-4 Thunderbird cockpit photo setup at an airshow
His Gigabot also fuels his own hobby – Ben has an F-86 Sabre for which he is making parts.

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Ben’s F-86 Sabre

Large-Scale 3D Printing for a Niche Market

Ben had originally placed an order for a smaller, desktop 3D printer before changing course for Gigabot.

“Most of the other printers were just too small for what I wanted to do without having to stitch stuff together. They were too small and too expensive for what they are, in my opinion,” Ben explains

“I didn’t want to be making trinkets. What I like about the Gigabot is it’s big,” he says. “I guess everything’s bigger in Texas.”

And for what Ben was looking to do, there really wasn’t another option – it was either 3D print the parts or fashion them by hand, something he hardly even considered as an option.

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F-4D Gunsight/Radar Scope

“If I had to hand-make one of these parts, it would just be way too many hours,” he explains. “It would be so tedious for an amount of money that wouldn’t make it worth it.”

Ben picked up CAD just so he could design these custom parts and print them out. “They’re not objects you’re going to find on Thingiverse,” he says. And despite the learning curve of CAD and 3D printing, it was still a no-brainer for him.

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A gas initiator Ben fashioned in CAD for a client that could not find an original unit. On the right is the original, and on the left is the one printed by Gigabot
“You’re saving a good half on time and money using Gigabot rather than doing this by hand.” He takes a deep inhale and sighs, “If I had to make one every time by hand, I probably wouldn’t even make two of ‘em. I mean seriously.”

As for how Ben feels about his new entrepreneurial path in life, “I just found a need and figured out how to solve it,” he explains. “This has happened to me before: I get an idea, and before I can act on it, someone else is doing it. And they’re the one making money on it and you’re not.”

His next challenge? Expanding the niche, he says. “I want this Gigabot running around the clock.”

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Solar Pioneers: CoWatt Energy and PowerFunnel

The Lightbulb Moment

When Bill Tolhurst and Cole Brady founded CoWatt Energy in 2013, they shared a passion to become part of the rapidly growing solar power industry, but were looking for a unique opportunity in an already-crowded space. If you have a business then you will probably be looking for some utilities and may need a Utility Bidder, to be more energy efficient. Their big inspiration came from Cole’s background as a 5th generation rancher.

As Bill describes it, there are a lot of innovative things going on in the traditional urban rooftop-mounted space, but almost nothing focused on the unique attributes and needs of rural areas. “Rural customers consume 30% of the total electric power in the US, yet it’s a very underserved market by the solar industry,” he says.

He goes on to explain, “Power is more expensive in rural areas than urban, and usually folks have land. They have the option to put solar on the ground rather than the roof, which is actually the better place for it.” Easier maintenance, no holes or unplanned loads on your roof, and low-risk in the eyes of a firefighter are some of the reasons that ground solar panel installations are more ideal when compared to their roof-mounted counterparts. Many people are starting to buy solar ground mounts to house their panels, if you are unaware as to what these products are, you should check out this guide on the benefits of solar ground mounts.

But ground-mount solar has some long-standing challenges. “We started off doing our deployments the old fashioned way, building everything onsite,” Bill recounts. “It takes a long time and it’s messy – think drilling holes in the ground, cutting steel, and pouring concrete. So rather than being the same guys doing the same thing as everyone else in the space, we started looking for a way that we could be different. “

Bill and Cole began asking themselves the question, how much of the solar deployment process can we move from the field to the factory? Bill uses an analogy to demonstrate the near-absurdity of the way solar is typically done, and how CoWatt is poised to change that.

“Imagine a car manufacturer trying to build your car in your driveway. It doesn’t make sense. The more efficient way is to build the car in a factory and deliver it to you ready to drive. This is the way CoWatt does solar.”

CoWatt’s flagship product, PowerFunnel™, is a factory-assembled and tested ground-mount solar unit that arrives onsite at the customer ready to go. The product is designed so that they nest and stack during transit much like shopping carts, serving the dual purpose of both maximizing space-efficiency during shipping as well as protecting the panels en-route.

“Instead of having to take thousands of individual pieces and put your power system together in the field like a giant erector set, PowerFunnel comes ready to deploy out of the gate.”

PowerFunnel Prototyping

With a solid concept of their product, Bill and Cole started looking for a way to begin the initial prototyping and design of PowerFunnel.

“We were working on a budget, but we also needed something that could produce a fairly sizeable volume.”

With dimensions of four to five feet in certain spots, Bill explained that they chose Gigabot because they can do up to 1/3 scale versions of PowerFunnel, using the same design file they use for the final scale product.

“We used Gigabot to do early iterations, to quickly determine if there were early issues with the design, and to make refinements and improvements along the way. Gigabot allowed us to keep this iterative design process in-house, enabling us to refine and improve our product much quicker than if we had tried to drive it directly into production early.”

Before Gigabot, their prototyping process was much slower and more expensive. They first worked with a third-party company to do full plywood mockups of PowerFunnel.

“The benefit was that they were making us a full-scale prototype, but it was expensive and didn’t allow for rapid design cycles,” says Bill. “We realized we didn’t really need all our prototypes to be full scale, but we did need to be able to take feedback from one iteration and pour it directly into the next to have a continuous improvement loop. Having Gigabot at our office and available immediately rather than going to a service bureau for prototyping meant we could do this very quickly.”

Speed to market was important for CoWatt, and the time savings of using Gigabot made it a no-brainer for them. “It was a weeks-to-days comparison,” explains Bill. “A couple weeks to get a prototype made externally versus a couple days internally.”

But it was the cost side that was even more compelling for them.

“The quotes that we were getting to do a ¼ or even 1/8 scale prototype meant that approach was cost prohibitive if we were going to do multiple iterations,” Bill explains. “The service bureau approach would’ve taken a lot more time and a great deal more money. Gigabot has more than paid for itself just in iterations on the first product.”

And while there are certain aspects of owning a 3D printer that one doesn’t have to deal with when going the third-party route, Bill felt that they were worth it for CoWatt.

“There is a learning curve, but we didn’t find it extraordinary. We didn’t have any prior 3D printing experience. Gigabot uses software tools and components that are well-proven and have a strong support and user community behind them. Overall it was a well-balanced trade-off on just our first product, and now we have the capability to do continuous innovation quickly and inexpensively in-house rather than absorb the lost time and expense of using a service bureau.”

A New Member of the Team

Having Gigabot as what Bill describes as a “captive resource” has proven to be valuable in more ways than just prototyping for CoWatt.

“PowerFunnel is a very visual product: the light bulb goes on when people see it. Being a young company with a brand new product, we needed a way to show it off to people while we were still working on it.”

Rather than relying on PowerPoint presentations and rotating 3D computer models to communicate their product to investors, they used Gigabot to print small, scaled-down versions of PowerFunnel.

“I think that being able to see the product, even scaled down, allowed us to clinch sales and investments,” Bill says. “Gigabot serves the great role of validating ideas quickly and then being able to present them easily to the marketplace and to investors at an early stage when having something tangible can make all the difference in the world of communicating your idea.”

And beyond the investment stage, Gigabot has come into play in yet another new way.

“As we started to go to market, the general public was very intrigued by these small models. We started building 1/16 scale PowerFunnels and using them as handouts for marketing purposes. It gave people a very immediate sense of what the product was about and served as a great physical takeaway.”

Gigabot continues to be an asset as CoWatt, and they see a long-term path for it with the company moving forward.

“This is an industry that moves rapidly, and we’re going to continue to evolve the product to improve performance, so Gigabot has an ongoing role with us,” explains Bill. “Now that we’ve launched the first generation of our product, Gigabot will be a part of the continuous feedback loop.”

A Bright Future

CoWatt announced PowerFunnel in late February, began delivering in late March, and is putting things in place to grow rapidly.

“We have them in everything from ex-urban community acreage homes to hardcore ranching and farming applications,” Bill comments.

“But it’s not only where PowerFunnel is being used, it’s how it’s being used that surprises and delights us.” Bills muses. “Our customers constantly come up with new ways to use our product that we had never imagined.”

One such application not originally on their radar is military.

“The number one cause of injuries and fatalities for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan is not front line combat, it’s in the transport of water and fuel,” explains Bill. “The ability to generate power without fuel, thereby reducing the risk to our troops – it’s very compelling.”

Since PowerFunnel is a completely integrated solar appliance, one could easily imagine loading 40 units in cargo plane and delivering them to a military outpost, disaster area, or a village in sub-Saharan Africa to start generating power in a couple of hours.

CoWatt is now actively pursuing leads both within the military as well as with international and relief agencies.

More about the PowerFunnel: http://www.powerfunnel.com/

Books & Bots: The Lab in the Library

Clear Lake City, a community in the Bay Area of Greater Houston, is a name you might not immediately recognize, but it’s the site of a couple things you probably will.

Most notably the home of the historic NASA Johnson Space Center, its Mission Control can be picked out in famous scenes from the 1969 moon landing or movies like Apollo 13 and The Martian. It’s the Houston in “Houston, we have a problem.”

Also not to be forgotten in Clear Lake’s list of places you’d know is our very own office.

Just down the street from the re:3D Houston office is another place putting Clear Lake on the map for technological innovation, one which you might not expect: the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

“This all started back in 2013 when we were notified that the library was named in a will: Mr. Jocelyn H. Lee’s, whose name is on the lab.”

Jim Johnson, Branch Manager of the library, explains how there came to be a tech innovation lab — complete with laser cutter and multiple 3D printers — in the middle of a library in Clear Lake.

“We had no expectation as to how much he might have left us. Once we did find out, I fell out of my chair. It was about $134,000.”

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Evolving to Survive

The library as an institution has defied odds in the face of technology. Fighting the battle against obsolescence, libraries have made it through multiple threats to their livelihood, their survival owed to the nimbleness of their leadership.

“Largely because of technology, libraries, especially public libraries, have had to constantly adapt,” Jim explains. “Once computers became more prevalent and the internet started making headway, libraries as a rule had to adapt in order to stay alive, and not merely just for the sake of staying relevant, but staying relevant to what’s important to people in the way that they acquire information.”

The unexpected and extremely generous donation was an opportunity for the library to do just that.

“We started looking at some trends out there in public libraries around the country and found that makerspaces were beginning to catch interest in communities. Being such a strong engineering community in Houston — from aerospace to chemical — we thought that we probably had the space here to do that kind of thing. We didn’t really see how we could lose if we did it right.”

So they got to work, repurposing the library’s Quiet Room — “It’s hard to imagine a quiet room being needed in a library,” Jim adds — to accommodate some heavier machinery than most libraries are used to having. Next on the list was finding the right person to head the lab.

 

From Tinkering to Training

 “I was a stay-at-home dad before this.”

Patrick Ferrell was the man brought on for the job of Innovation Lab Trainer. “Before a year ago, the library was a place I brought the kids for storytime. I had never touched a 3D printer until after I found out I got this job.”

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A natural tinkerer and hobbyist, Patrick’s professional background in mechanical engineering and physics lent itself well to what the library was looking to do. He now organizes and leads classes on everything from basic circuits and programming to robotics and structure-building with marshmallows and spaghetti.

“Whatever it looks like we need to do in order to cater to the audience we have,” he explains. “Since we’re the only space like this in the county system — and all of Southeast Texas as far as I know — I have a fair bit of latitude and freedom in what kind of classes we offer. Whatever I think looks like fun is what we do. If other people think it looks like fun too, then they come in and we keep offering it.”

His tactics have been working. As Jim put it, “Any success that the space has had is really largely due to Patrick’s influence.”

Walk into the lab and you’ll see what it’s all about. The walls are lined with eye-catching machinery and class creations. A “Cardboardosaurus” T-rex head hangs above their Gigabot in one corner; in another is an outer-space-themed piece of art made entirely using filament from abandoned and failed 3D prints, the masterpiece of one very creative library shelving assistant. Tribute to the original tech influence of the area you can find several NASA-themed 3D prints around the room, among them a several-foot-tall rocket and a model of the Orion space capsule. The laser cutter was my personal favorite — intricate wood, paper, and cardboard portraits adorned the wall next to the machine — proving that two-dimensions can still be cool.

 

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Trend-Following to Trend-Setting

The recent boom in interest in desktop 3D printers allowed the library to tap into the trend and retain its relevancy in the community by getting several printers for the lab.

With a Gigabot in addition to two desktop-sized Makerbot Replicators, they also have the advantage of boasting a print volume unmatched by many local makerspaces. Because of this, they often get called on when a project has hit the size ceiling at another facility.

One of Patrick’s favorite projects so far was one by a local Houston teenager, Nicholas. He had been working with Techno Chaos, a local makerspace, the director of which knew that the library had a Gigabot.

“The director, Mike, called me up and said, ‘I’ve got this kid who’s designed a Freddy Fazbear costume and we’ve printed it on the MakerBot, but he wants to make it full-size. Do you think you could help him?’”

It was the longest print the library had taken on at the time.

“Just the head of the costume was a 44 hour print. But Nicholas was passionate about the project, and his persistence and perseverance enabled him to complete the entire thing successfully.”

What’s made it all worth it for Patrick is seeing success stories like Nicholas’s. “His parents would come in and say, ‘It’s good to see him excited about this kind of thing.’ Finding some outlet for him to be creative in that way was really great. Seeing him so excited, that’s what made it all so rewarding for me.”

And the sentiment is catching.

Patrick told the story of how Nicholas displayed his large-scale print at his booth at the local maker faire. “The director of the Harris County Public Library system was really impressed with his project. When it came time for budget talks, Nicholas and his dad went before the county commissioner’s court to say, ‘This is why libraries are important. This gives our son a place to go to use tools like this.’ The commissioners then asked, ‘How can I get one of these in my precinct?’ They see someone like Nicholas who’s passionate about this, excited about it, and they want to give more young people access to it.”

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Challenges on the Front Lines of Innovation

Jim and Patrick have seen firsthand what doors the Innovation Lab has opened for the local community, and they understand the value that technologies like 3D printers can bring to the right people.

“Schools are starting to have the smaller printers, so if you’re doing a school project, that’s great,” Patrick explains. “But if you’re doing a personal project, then you’re kind of out of luck. You’re either sending your file off to Shapeways and paying outrageous amounts, or you have to find someone on 3D Hubs, but it’s really hard to find somewhere that can print at the scale of what’s possible on Gigabot.”

On top of large-scale printing, there is another big selling point that sets the Innovation Lab apart from similar spaces in the area and around the country.

“What’s special about our makerspace is that we don’t charge dues or membership fees,” says Patrick. “The only thing you’re paying for is the material you use.”

The fact that the space remains open and accessible to the community is a core tenet of the library. The creative potential there is seemingly limitless — the machinery they have on hand coupled with its accessibility is a recipe for unbridled innovation. But being the first to tread through this territory means the library is crossing bridges as they go; the excitement of being on the front lines of innovation comes hand-in-hand with its challenges.

One thing they’ve encountered is the gap between the public’s general expectation of 3D printing and the reality of the technology.

“I don’t know, you mean I have to design it myself? Can’t you just design it for me? I have a picture, can’t we use that? What if I sketch it out on a piece of paper? I found this picture on the internet, is that good enough?” Patrick runs through the common questions he gets from some people when they first come in to 3D print. “Once we get over that hurdle, then people are more interested and they’ll start printing.”

Another thing they struggle with is demand for large-scale 3D printing, due in part to the gimmicky phase that desktop 3D printing is going through.

“Many people who come in are printing little trinkets. It satisfies the ‘Hey look, I 3D printed something’ desire, and they don’t need to go further,” says Patrick.

People are still figuring out how they can use 3D printing to make something practical. The intent in creating Gigabot was to serve just that purpose: a 3D printer at a scale large enough to print practical, real-world objects rather than just small trinkets.

Patrick speculates that the intimidation factor of the sheer size of a large-scale 3D printer adds to this tendency to avoid Gigabot in favor of their desktop printers. With a steep learning curve for 3D printing in general, expanding the build volume several orders of magnitude certainly can complicate things.

This is something that may prove to be the biggest challenge for libraries looking to open internal makerspaces: how do you tap into and attract the group of people who have a genuine need and use for these technologies? A long-term sustainable plan may not be able to rely on a stream of one-time visitors only there to print their name on a keychain and check a box on their bucket list, not to return again.

What spaces like this need are superusers, people who will return week after week, month after month, because they have a practical use for the machinery.

IMG_0031

 

Lessons Learned for Libraries

 At re:3D, we talk to a lot of people — inventors, entrepreneurs, tinkerers — with a clear use for large-scale 3D printing, but a lack of a budget with which to get one. To have access to a space where the only cost is a material fee would be the difference between bringing a product to market and never having the idea leave the drawing board.

A big reason 3D printing has flourished as a tool for businesses is its knack for prototyping. Companies can eliminate the need for third-party designers and injection mold do-overs, saving sizable chunks of time and money in the design and prototyping process. With a 3D printer, you could have a prototype made for as much money as it costs to do a few loads of laundry at the laundromat, in nearly the same amount of time. As Patrick explains, “Gigabot is great for designing a prototype which you want to market or show off to investors.”

Because of this, referrals have been a boon to the library, allowing them to offer their equipment to exactly these kinds of people: the garage entrepreneurs with plenty of ideas but not a lot of ways to make them a reality. Local makerspaces like the one that referred Nicholas — as well as the Houston Inventor’s Association, which also sends people their way who want to print big prototypes — have started to get the word out to their user bases.

In the meantime, the library is forging their own path in this new era of how communities interact with their local libraries. Jim is walking proof of the open and innovative mindset that must come with the librarian territory.

“I think that libraries are more about information and knowledge — a place to keep it and a place to use it — and I think makerspaces are a place to use information that you acquire. This is part of the reason why I think this is an excellent fit for libraries and allows them to remain relevant, not just for the sake of staying relevant, but as a practical place to learn something by doing. I think that hopefully, if other libraries catch on to this, you can easily have libraries remaining relevant not only as a place to absorb and acquire information, but also to use it in a practical way.

This has changed my perspective on libraries being only about books.

 

IMG_0019

 

Do you or someone you know live in the area?  Go check out the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab on the second floor of the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library.

See more photos of the lab

Visit their website

Check their facebook page for posts about classes

Read more about their lab offerings

Gigabot Shapes Sound at Acoustics First

Acoustics First in Richmond, Virginia, USA

Acoustic Diffusers scatter sound and break up hard, contiguous reflections, allowing the sound energy to spread evenly throughout the space without interfering with the sound being produced.  They are used in many different environments: recording studios, audio mixing spaces, loudspeaker demonstration spaces, high-end home theaters, school concert and rehearsal spaces, churches, music venues, and some of the most renowned listening spaces in the world, which have stringent demands on their acoustic environments.  Our diffusers have been used in all of these and more.

listen

We have created a streamlined approach to developing diffusers: we have a virtual design and development process which includes the virtual modeling and testing to determine if it’s meeting our specifications.  However, it is invaluable to have a full-scale printed prototype in hand – allowing for real-world evaluation.  This is where the Gigabot comes into play.  It allows us to have designs in our hand at full scale, to verify our virtual development data under real-world observable and testable conditions.  With live prototypes in hand, we can measure the sound direction and intensity being reflected off the surfaces, which tells us if our development processes were successful, even before we go to production.

GIGABOT-SignD

We are firm believers in the efficacy of rapid prototyping, and it integrates well in our model of virtualized design, testing, and geometry optimization before manufacturing.

Acoustics First - Atlantic

Our Gigabot has allowed us to reach out further and work on designs that may have been too complicated to realize in any other way, as well as saved us time and money in the design process.

This process has helped the industry immensely, as we can easily prototype and test designs that would have been impractical — if not impossible — to create any other way. This allows for real innovation and process evaluation, which then evolves into designs we can offer to customers worldwide.

-Jim DeGrandis, Acoustics First

Spotlight on Gigabot @ The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago

I mentioned before that I interned at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago over the summer. The Field got its Gigabot in December, 2013. The Field’s Gigabot can be found in the Regenstein Laboratory, which is nestled within the bowels of the Traveling the Pacific exhibition. A huge glass window connects this realm of science to the world of museum-goers. This was where the party was at during my summer internship.

How was the Gigabot put together in the Regenstein?

We made this cool video of our team doing a Gigabot Assembly!

Where is the Regenstein?

“Start at the palm tree, go past the volcano, cross the coral atoll, sneak along one side of the genuine Micronesian canoe, and there you are.”

CT Scans to Gigabot

At the Field, a CT (computed tomography) Scan is one starting point for 3D printing. I’ve seen CT scans of a variety of human and animal mummies, historical musical instruments, and more. The CT scan then must be segmented (I did some of this!). This means that someone needs to work with the scan in a computer program to distinguish all the various material components of the object. For example, I had to separate bone from different layers of wrappings into separate regions of interest in a mummy cat.

The Field also gets creative with 3D models before any printing happens. For example, in the “Opening the Vaults” Wonders of the 1893 World’s Fair” exhibit there was a giant touch screen table that showed an interactive 3D model of a mummy. Museum-goers can manipulate the mummy to swivel in any direction, unwrap the mummy, and reveal its cross-sectional layers.

In the exhibit, “The Machine Inside: Biomechanics,” there is a life size cheetah frozen in mid-run. The Biomechanics exhibit that travels internationally, however, uses a cutaway cheetah that was made using a 3D printed skeleton. The skeleton is a model based on photogrammetry of the cheetah taxidermy in the Field Biomechanics exhibit and a CT scan of a preserved cheetah body. Moving a real cheetah body around all over the world involves high risks of damaging it, but using a 3D model is much safer and more cost-efficient. The cheetah bones could be printed on site at these various locations. Gigabot was used to make smaller test prints of the cheetah bones back at home in the Field. Check out the photos below to see examples of final prints of the cheetah bones used in exhibits, and for additional information, visit http://www.materialise.com/blog/mummies-cheetahs-3d-printing/ and http://www.fieldmuseum.org/science/blog/mummies-and-cheetahs-3d.

3D Photogrammetry to Gigabot

3D Photogrammetry is the precise art of taking still photos–many photos from many different angles—of an object, and then combining these photos to create a 3D computer model of said object, which then can be printed out in 3D. I helped Regenstein Conservator JP Brown take hundreds of photos of a tiny wood-boring bivalve in the round at 10 degree increments. The lighting had to be just right—we tried dozens of various lighting setups in order to find out how much detail the 3D photogrammetry technique can produce.

A practice print of the shell in question:

 

shell

Xbox Kinect Sensor to Gigabot

The clever people at the Regenstein also adapted an Xbox Kinect Sensor, which can sense movements of video game players, into a tool for generating 3D scans. Say, for example, I desired a 3D self-portrait of myself with which to admire my strikingly good looks. I would sit on the Regenstein’s very own makeshift spinning stool (it has its own motor and foot pedal and everything) while the sensor scanned all 360 degrees of my head. Voila! There is now a 3D computer model of my head, which can be now printed.

Jp heads

 

More Examples of Field Museum 3D Printed Projects

– replication of a proxy of a Chinese oracle bone for mount makers

– reproduction of Chinese Mingqi horse

– replication of skulls of animals

– production of 3D designs for education workshops

– reproduction of scans of ceramics from mummies.

(Thank you Regenstein Conservator JP Brown for sharing this list of projects and, many of the photos!)

 

 

bracelet

Thanks to Gigabot’s size, these bracelets could be mass produced to hand out for educational purposes.

More fun with the Gigabot is available here!

Snapshots from 3D-scanning and printing the Cheetah:

bones in boxes

 

 

photogrammetry 1

CT scan mosaic

CT cheetah

 

[CT scanning the cheetah]

[black and white computer model]

computer model

[Blue and yellow Cura computer model]

bones

[Bones on blue background]

For more information check out this blog

Thanks for reading! Go home and print something now.

Sunny
Intern: Intern.obj
sunny@re3d.org