How 3D Printing is helping the Past

Trilobite 3D Printing

Although 3D printing is still a relatively new development, it is already being used in a variety of applications. Dr. Alan Drummond, a biochemistry professor at the University of Chicago, has a passion for trilobites (an extinct species of prehistoric marine life), and this has resulted in him looking for a way to inspect them in greater detail. “I always wanted to hold a trilobite, to pick one up out of the rock, turn it over, run my fingers along the spines,” he said.  

A Potential Printing Challenge

Drummond realized that the amount of fragile extremities like tiny limbs and protruding antennae on the trilobites would prove to be a challenge to 3D print. In order to prevent a damaged 3D print, the biochemistry professor decided to make use of a couple of different species of trilobites, forgoing the more fragile bits that would not hold up with post-processing. What started as freehand sketches soon became more advanced Inkscape projects, which then ended up in the Blender open-source creation suite. Although this resulted in a sturdier 3D printable model that was largely based on the Ceraurus trilobite; there were pieces of other trilobite species of trilobite used as well.

Using a Formlabs Form1 3D Printer

Dr. Drummond’s university was granted access to a Formlabs Form1 3D printer that he made use of to print his first model of a trilobite. The first print was created by using a 0.05mm resolution in a clear resin, which resulted in a semitransparent model being created. An improved model was later made from a black resin that was then cleaned with isopropanol right after it came out of the 3D printer. However, Drummond was not overly happy with the results, which resulted in him making further modifications to the original project before it was sent off Shapeways to make a 3D printed model that would have a totally new and improved look and feel.

Requesting a Metal 3D Print

Making use of Shapeways again, Dr. Drummond requested that they create a metal 3D print of the trilobite, which he was highly impressed with. A few more metal versions of the Ceraurus model were printed, and with the exception of a few minor defects, it was a tremendous improvement on the original resin-printed models. A Frosted Ultra Detail resin process with a 29-micron layer was used to create a high detailed plastic print of a different trilobite design. Dr. Drummond then polished the bronze-printed model of his pièce de résistance to enhance the details significantly.

Dr. Drummond was pleased with the greatly enhanced bronze 3D printed model of the trilobite, as he considered it to be a tremendous improvement from the first few resin models. In fact, the final creation of the trilobite is the most accurate reconstructed model in existence, with the legs similar to Stormer’s 1939 and 1951 reconstruction studies. The final step in the project involved another model being printed in silver to complement the bronze one.