Is it time for museums to embrace 3D printing?

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February 2014

As we reported in May, 3D printers are getting a lot of media attention these days. Indeed, the technology does offer some intriguing possibilities. And fueled by significant price decreases in recent years, consumers are now starting to purchase 3D printers for personal use. However, does the mainstream acceptance of 3D printing have the staying power to survive once the initial novelty wears off? And more specifically, should museums care about 3D printing? If so, is it a threat or an opportunity?

What is 3D printing?

3D printing has actually existed for a long time, but due to its prohibitive cost, was typically reserved for architects, engineers and industrial designers. These professionals could create 3D models from scratch on their computer and then print off prototypes. Nowadays however, the technology caters increasingly to casual users, who favor simpler methods that don’t require learning elaborate design techniques. Specifically, it’s now possible to capture existing objects with an ordinary camera and automatically generate a 3D model (which can then be tweaked on a computer later if required).

Technological progress

In essence, the growth in 3D printing is helped by the ease with which users can now render objects. With commonly available software, people can generate a 3D model using any run-of-the-mill smartphone. Typically, the user just needs to walk around the object and the camera will capture multiple frames at different angles to render a digital version onscreen (though, shiny objects are harder to map digitally). The computer aided design (CAD) breaks down the entire object into a series of 3D vectors that can be resized at will.

The printer builds the object in layers where every pass adds a little more depth. The finished product is a scaled 3D replica of the original, only it’s made primarily of plastic (unfortunately, metal is harder to work with). Almost all shapes are possible, as long as the item is smaller than a loaf of bread, since printers are about the size of a toaster oven.

However, the process is not fast; it can take hours to complete even small objects. So it wouldn’t make sense to mass produce items with 3D printers, but for one-off models, the accuracy is surprisingly good. Anything can be made, from jewellery to auto parts – including disturbingly, dangerous objects like guns (but the plastic replica would still require regular bullets).

Use by museum visitors

With the proliferation of mobile apps capable of mapping 3D objects, it may come to a point where patrons might start capturing objects during their visit, so that they can print them later at home, or share them on the Internet. This possibility introduces a whole host of copyright concerns (which are notably similar to the issues raised when museums decide to share parts of their collections online). For instance, the models could be used inappropriately or for commercial purposes, such as selling an iPhone case mimicking a sculptor’s design, a clock made from a famous piece, or drug paraphernalia made out of historical objects.

Museums offering 3D models

On the other hand, some museums have embraced the technology and provide 3D designs on their website or at their gift shop. For example, the Metropolitan Museum in New York recently provided free 3D models of some of its statues. Users with a 3D printer could go to Thingiverse, choose which pieces they want to download, and print a scale replica in their homes.

The Smithsonian, the world’s largest museum, is doing the same. It’s a way to showcase its vast collection, where most of its reportedly 137 million pieces are in storage at any given time. In fact, the museum estimates it only has room for only 2% if their collection, so the majority of its objects are inaccessible to the public. To ensure superior quality, the museum uses high-tech scanners to capture the objects it wants to share online.

What if you don’t own a 3D printer?

Companies are sprouting up to print items on demand and send the finished product to the consumer. For instance, if one wanted a copy of a delicate fossil or a precious historical artefact, they could purchase the design, edit it at home (possibly resizing it) and order the print online. As a matter of fact, this technology is well suited to replicate artefacts. Pieces that need to be handled with care, like dinosaur bones, can be scanned and then freely manipulated by researchers around the world.

The future of 3D printing

Ultimately, some think 3D printing could change the way people experience and engage with museum collections, while others are more skeptical. To be certain, domestic use of 3D printing, while growing, is currently fairly limited. There are few reasons at the moment for households to purchase their own 3D printers, unless there are collectors or craft makers of some kind. For most people, the idea of making their own knickknacks or copies of ordinary objects isn’t compelling enough to justify the time and expense. But that may change in the future.

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2 Responses to Is it time for museums to embrace 3D printing?

  1. Alex Enkerli says:

    Could easily imagine some projects for “makers” in museums and other heritage institutions. FabLabs and Hackerspaces are part of a growing trend toward community members reappropriating technology. Let’s hope Canada’s cultural and heritage institutions will be part of this trend. Many opportunities for citizen participation!

  2. Seos Ó Colla says:

    This has a fantastic potential to be utilised positively amongst a variety of interest groups. The teaching potential alone is an exciting prospect. I say embrace the future on this one.

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