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The Q? Blog

How 3D Printers Help Archaeologists and the Army

by Tana -- Oct 27, 2014
Q?Crew teen volunteer Tana holds a 3D-printed skull. Photo by Christina Westpheling, Smithsonian Institution.

Hi! My name is Tana and I volunteer as part of the Q?Crew at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I've always had a passion for helping out...

A 3D printer stands behind the skulls it has created for the Mystery Skulls activity in Q?rius. The skull at left is an unpainted 3D print; the ones in the boxes have been painted. Photo by Christina Westpheling, Smithsonian Instituion.
A 3D printer stands behind the skulls it has created for the Mystery Skulls activity in Q?rius. The skull at left is an unpainted 3D print; the ones in the boxes have been painted. Photo by Christina Westpheling, Smithsonian Instituion.

Q?Crew teen volunteers get special opportunities to attend trainings with experts on topics and activities that are part of Q?rius. One recent training was all about the making of the "Mystery Skull" activity, in which visitors help to identify an early human skull based on 3D prints of actual skulls.

Before the training even started, an expert set up a 3D printer to begin printing something. I couldn't take my eyes off of that weird contraption. I had no idea what it was doing and couldn't figure out how it was working, but the bright lights and moving arms of the printer were so intriguing. I’ve never in my life been so absorbed by a piece of technology.

There were two presenters; the first was Smithsonian archaeologist Briana Pobiner, who works in the Hall of Human Origins. She explained the basics of our human family tree and discussed the origins of standing on two legs and meat eating, which impressed us with how far humans have come. I learned Homo sapiens have been on Earth for over 200,000 years! This is a great fact to share with visitors checking out the "Mystery Skull" activity in Q?rius.

The second presenter was Bradley Ruprecht, who works for the U.S. Army’s Rapid Technologies Lab. The first thing he said that caught my attention was that part of their work involves developing a machine that destroys chemical weapons. He showed us an image of the machine and it was larger than a truck. Ruprecht also uses 3D printing to make models and other items to aid Army soldiers. He takes full body scans of soldiers before they are deployed. Afterwards, if a solider gets injured, a titanium replacement bone can be 3D printed to fit him or her.  

Ruprecht helped to make the skulls for the activity in Q?rius using a 3D printing method called selective laser sintering. Actual lasers were used to copy the 3D scan of the skulls and to melt layers of latex powder together. The thickest layer it can make is the width of only four human hairs. This molded powder later became the skulls that Q?rius visitors are familiar with.

3D printing is such an amazing advancement and it was so cool how we went from discussing the origins of standing on two legs to developing technologies that can create objects. What else will come in the future?