3D printed fossils. Source: Jane Rix /Shutterstock.com
3D printed fossils. Source: Jane Rix /Shutterstock.com

The British Geological Survey announced that it has created on online database of photographs and 3D digital models of all the fossil specimens located in the British archives. The database, known as the GB3D Type Fossils online project, was created by Dr. Mike Howe, Chief Curator of the National Geological Repository in Great Britain. “As a palaeontologist, I’ve sometimes struggled to locate some of the older type (reference specimen) fossils, and I have long felt that a single shared database would be a good solution,” said Dr Howe.

Anyone from anywhere in the world can not only view a high definition image, but also download and 3D print a fossil replica. The ability to study a physical object that you can hold, touch, and turn in your hands surpasses looking at an image alone. It becomes a tangible study aid.

Each specimen is 3D scanned, photographed and categorized online where it will benefit professionals, professors, students, and fossil enthusiasts. “I have long felt that we needed to improve public and academic access, and the Jisc funded project has enabled us to do just that,” stated Howe. “Developments in digital photography, affordable laser scanners, and data storage and networks have combined to make the project possible.”

We were curious to see how the downloaded files would print. In our lab here at WhiteClouds, we printed the apoderoceras mutatum (Simpson) fossil (Fossil specimen: BGS GSM26406 – Holotype) on four different 3D printers, using four different materials, to see how the models compared. We used the MakerBot Replicator 2, Stratasys Mojo, ZPrinter 650, and the ProJet 3500 HDMax. Here are the results of each print:

MakerBot Replicator 2

Technology: Fused Filament Fabrication

Material: PLA (natural color)

Overall, the print turned out well with fairly good detail. We printed the model with a raft and supports which were necessary to print this fossil. A downside to using the MakerBot is the support material was a little difficult to remove and left some marks on the back of the fossil. However, the MakerBot’s model provides an overall good representation of the fossil. 

We would recommend printing in a non-transparent color. The transparency of the natural colored filament makes it more difficult to see the fine details in the fossil. It also allows you to see the inside fill pattern, especially under bright lights.

Stratasys Mojo

Technology: Fused Filament Fabrication

Material: ABS

The Stratasys Mojo also uses fused filament fabrication technology but prints with ABS filament. The detail of the Mojo’s model was slightly better than that of the MakerBot’s. That might be attributed to the opaque material. The big advantage to printing a fossil on a commercial ABS printer, like the Mojo, Fortus, or UPrint, is the support material is soluble. This is beneficial because the model won’t have any defects caused by removing the support material.

We printed the fossil in standard white and it printed nicely. 

ZPrinter 650

Technology: Binder Jetting

Material: Sandstone-like (multi-color)

The ZPrinter 650 prints in a material that feels like a smooth sandstone and it prints in full-color. The finished product is almost fossil-like. This, in our opinion, produced the most accurate model. The colors matched almost perfectly with the image of the original fossil and the detail is amazing. Because of how the binder jetting technology works, defects due to the support material are not an issue.

The one drawback to fossils printed with the ZPrinter is they are more fragile. If you were to drop the model on a hard surface, there’s a good chance it will break or chip.   

ProJet 3500 HDMax

Technology: Multi-jet Modelling

Material: UV-Cured Resin

We also printed the fossil on a ProJet 3500 HDMax by 3D Systems. Of the four printers we used, this one has the highest resolution. The detail is best on this model; you are able to see even the fine cracks in the fossil. However, because of the transparency of the material, it is harder to see the detail in the fossil.

The support material on the ProJet melts away, leaving the surface touching the support material undamaged.

Overall, we were very happy with the results on all of the printers. These fossils are a treasure, and through modern technologies, can be enjoyed by people around the globe. This may be the beginning to more databases of downloadable objects in the future that will further education and research.

You can visit GB3D Type Fossils online at http://www.3d-fossils.ac.uk/home.html.