3D Scanning and Printing: A Look into the Future of Artifact Preservation and Access

Imagine a world where you could make whatever you want, just by pressing “print”.

Forget going to the store to buy your clothes, just download a digital file and print yourself a new pair shoes. Lost a button on your jacket? Scan and print a replacement, no problem. Fancy a miniature statue of Michelangelo’s David after your recent trip to Florence? Why not construct a direct replica of the real thing using your vacation photographs?

All this might sound like something straight out of a science fiction novel, but in reality, this technology is right on our doorstep. In the past 30 years, 3D printing has moved away from the theoretical and planted itself firmly in our everyday reality.

3D Printer_840pixOne of three 3D printers at the NAIT’s Shell Manufacturing Centre. This particular printer constructs its models by extruding a filament of model material through a nozzle under heat. Credit: Hayley Robb.

If up until now you have only associated 3D printing with brightly coloured plastic baubles, you might be surprised by the large assortment of applications that 3D scanners and printers are used for today. 3D imaging is used extensively in the field of manufacturing for industrial design and product development, and in the oil and gas industry for pipeline inspections. For years, the entertainment industry has employed 3D technology in the production of movies and video games, and we have only just begun to see what possibilities 3D printing holds for health care with printed prosthetics, medical implants, and even living cells for transplantation.

Robert Downey Jr. (a.k.a. Iron Man) surprises a child with a new bionic 3D printed arm, courtesy of Limbitless Solutions

Movie stars and medical miracles aside, 3D technology also has another application that hits a little closer to home for us at NMC: the documentation of cultural artifacts.

Due to their delicate nature, artifacts are often stored away from view and touch, and sheltered from harmful fluctuations in temperature, humidity and light. Rarely are museum visitors allowed to interact with a cultural artifact beyond looking at it, and even if a replica of an object is produced, the mere process of making a reproduction can be too invasive and risky for fragile or sensitive artifacts.

This is where 3D scanning comes into play. A 3D scanner is a device that uses infrared lasers, white light, or even photographs, to analyze a real-world object or environment in order to collect data on its shape and appearance. These scanners are used to produce a 3D representation (such as a point cloud) of an object or site, which can then be further used to print a 3D model.

Ira_840pixIra Laughy of Rapid3D in Calgary takes a 3D scan of an object using a white light scanner. This scanner projects a pattern of light onto an object, while an attached camera calculates the distance of each point based on the deformation of that pattern on the object. Credit: Hayley Robb.

Because it’s not necessary for 3D scanners to make contact with an object’s surface to measure it, museums thus are able to create an accurate digital copy of an artifact to use for documentation, without risking harm to the object. This tool is extremely useful for the preservation of knowledge, as we all know that artifacts can deteriorate over time or accidentally get damaged. If something like that were to happen, the collection of 3D scan data would ensure that an artifact’s valuable information is stored in a digital archival record.

The Smithsonian museum uses 3D scanners to create digital archive records of their collection artifacts.

In addition to artifact documentation, 3D data collection has the potential to impact many facets of a typical museum:

  • Researchers will be able to view a digital model of an artifact from multiple angles, enabling them to see details on a computer screen that would normally be invisible to the naked eye.
  • Conservators will be able to scan an artifact that has just returned from a loan, and compare it to a previous scan of its surface to determine if any damage occurred during its transport.
  • Exhibit designers will be able to commission custom-fitted display mounts for irregularly shaped artifacts.
  • Educators will be able to download a digital model of an artifact, such as a fossil, and print it as a teaching tool for their classrooms.
  • Special needs visitors that might not normally be able to see items on exhibit will be able to have a tactile interaction with 3D printed artifact reproductions.
  • Even museum gift stores can get in on the fun by selling miniature 3D printed replicas of their most popular collection items to visitors.

JL_Tonto_840pixImagine visiting NMC and leaving with your own miniature replica of the world’s largest synthesizer, TONTO? (Miniature replica of John sold separately). Credit: Chad Schroter-Gillespie.

3D scanning technology is still relatively pricey for most museums’ budgets; however, the equipment is getting cheaper and more accessible by the day. This past weekend I attended a 3D Scanning for Conservators workshop at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton. Many of the workshop’s instructors were aware of the financial restraints on cultural institutions and suggested several cheaper solutions to the traditional 3D scanning technology.

For example, if you have the correct digital modeling software, 3D scan data can be collected through simple photographs using a digital camera, or even a cell phone. Based on the science of photogrammetry, which takes measurements from photos, a 3D point cloud can be constructed through the triangulation of multiple 2D photographs of the same subject. This 3D scanning method is quite cost-effective, as it does not require any particular hardware except for a digital camera, which most institutions already possess.

Another cost-effective 3D scanning system suggested at the workshop was the Kinect, a motion-sensing device developed by Microsoft for their Xbox gaming consoles. The Kinect uses Time of Flight (TOF) sensor technology to scan an object’s surface by emitting a pulse of infrared light and calculating the amount of time the light takes to strike the surface of the object and return to the scanner. Though the accuracy of a kinect scanner is not as precise as an advanced scanning system, it does come at a fraction of the cost, and can likely be purchased at your neighbourhood Best Buy.

Xboxkinect_840pixKinect, the add-on motion sensor for Xbox gaming consoles, can double as a 3D scanning device for institutions on a budget. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Unless you have a computing or engineering background, it’s quite easy to get muddled in the technological jargon associated with 3D scanning and printing. What is crystal clear however, are the many benefits of this technology for museums and cultural institutions.

The growing accessibility of 3D data collection means not only that an artifact’s physical information can be preserved long after the artifact itself is gone, but that fragile museum objects can finally be brought out of the shadows of a storage room onto a website to be viewed and downloaded. Additionally, if artifact scans are 3D printable, then there are even more tactile benefits. Visitors can touch something they’re not normally allowed to touch in real life, enhancing their overall experience and understanding of a museum object.

For NMC in particular, the ability to scan, replicate, and print instrument parts—or one day, a entire functioning instrument—will have a lasting effect on the longevity of our living collection. Instead of de-commissioning a playable instrument from the living collection because its parts have worn out and we can’t find replacements, we’ll be able to scan and print our own parts. It’s just one step further in ensuring the sustainability of our instrument collection.

Who knew that futuristic technology would have such an impact on how we care for the past?


– Hayley Robb

Questions or Comments?  Email me at hayley.robb@nmc.ca.

Want to hear more about the collections at NMC? Be sure to check out past blog entries featured in Amplify.


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