What is 3D Printing?

Also known as rapid prototyping, 3D printing refers to technologies that construct physical objects from three-dimensional (3D) digital content such as computer-aided design (CAD), computer aided tomography (CAT), and X-ray crystallography. A 3D printer builds a tangible model or prototype from the file, one layer at a time, using an inkjet-like process to spray a bonding agent onto a very thin layer of fixable powder. The bonding agent can be applied very accurately to build an object from the bottom up, layer by layer. The process even accommodates moving parts within the object. Using different powders and bonding agents, color can be applied, and prototype parts can be rendered in plastic, resin, or metal. This technology is commonly used in manufacturing to build prototypes of almost any object (scaled to fit the printer, of course) — models, plastic and metal parts, or any object that can be described in three dimensions.
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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the museums you know best?

  • From a museology perspective, I see this revolutionary technology as a major and fantastic tool for the reconstitution of heritage objects for which no physical examples subsist today. I view this tech as a major boost to museum studies research - scholars and museum conservation professionals. In fact this disruptive technology has the potential to demonstrate to all (professionals and publics) the importance of research when such results from the study of heritage documentation and its findings can be physically reconstructed and mediated for the benefits of all. On top of that, the digital findings generated from this new and augmented interest for the 3D reconstitution of heritage objects are secured for posterity, hopefully with a full open data availability approach.- guy.deschenes guy.deschenes Oct 10, 2012 Agreed and well said! - Sam Sam Oct 15, 2012 Agreed as well! - skeer skeer Oct 16, 2012

  • I agree with Guy. Not sure how long this technology has been available to industry but it's being used in pretty innovative ways and it's proving to be very useful to scientists who want to compare specimens but can't ship them to other institutions. Not to mention the possibilities for exhibition and display! - elka.weinstein elka.weinstein Oct 12, 2012
  • - melanger melanger Oct 15, 2012 Doing an image scan to create a 3D model for printing requires patience and practice- leading a museum visitor to have a very intimate interaction with the piece- a fossil, a sculpture, an urn, whatever the object is. Watching a 3d Printer, even of the most basic sort (a dual extruder model) is also a lesson in mechanics, at least in the short term, while it is possible to see inside & watch all the moving components.
  • - ed.rodley ed.rodley Oct 15, 2012 The ability to create and reproduce objects at will is about as disruptive as possible to museum practice which privileges the "authentic" over jsut about anything else. That said, 3D printing is being explored as a scientific tool for studying specimens, as a rapid prototyping and production tool, and as a visitor-facing demonstration of scanning technology.

(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • One key component of this technology is 3D scanning. This technology has developed in parallel with 3D printing and is now available in the form of free and commercial mobile apps, making it almost as easy as digital photography (see articles below).- scott.sayre scott.sayre Oct 14, 2012
  • how 3D printing is capturing the popular imagination and seems to have already been accepted as a natural development of digital processes - lorna.obrien lorna.obrien Oct 15, 2012
  • Use of 3D printing in practical activities- exploration of process from design to production, demonstration and participatory access can open up new possibilities for museum learning activity - lorna.obrien lorna.obrien Oct 15, 2012

  • - ed.rodley ed.rodley Oct 15, 2012 I often hear 3D printing being touted as a personalization tool; one that would allow visitors to make something unique and take home a physical record of something they did at the museum, even if its just a bust of their head or hand.

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on education and interpretation in museums?

  • This technology can play a variety of key roles in museum education ranging from allowing museums, teachers, students and other visitors to create physical reproductions for study and experimentation inside and outside of the museum to providing tactile learning experiences for the visually impaired.- scott.sayre scott.sayre Oct 14, 2012
  • - melanger melanger Oct 15, 2012 I agree with Scott, but I also think that before we move on to more sophisticated printing options, to teach about just how it works- that is pretty magical in and of itself.

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?