Post 8: 3DR – An Introduction to 3D Printing

As a final part of the NUIM-AFF621: Remaking the Physical – 3D recording assignment, students were asked to submit one of their final 3D models for 3D printing. In the first post of this series, I discussed the benefits of 3D recording in the context of the cultural heritage sector and 3D printing was included as one of those benefits. Therefore, this post will focus on a brief introduction to this topic.

3D printing is a subset of a process known as additive manufacturing (AM) (Campbell et al. 2). AM implies that an object is produced “layer-by layer—additively—rather than by subtracting material from a larger piece of material” – known as subtractive manufacturing (Campbell et al. 1). Circa 1986, Carl Decker and Joe Beaman of the University of Texas, revealed their invention of the first Selective Laser Sintering printer (Lipson and Kurma 9). From the late 1980s, 3D printing technology was first commercialised in the form of stereolithography (Wohler; Wachowiak and Karas 144). Although, Campbell et al. suggest that the concept was first realised in 1977 by Swainson who proposed “a method of creating 3D objects directly by using two electromagnetic radiation beams and a sensitive polymer that solidifies in the presence of the beam”, and this is regarded as “the ancestor of modern stereolithography” (Campbell et al. 4). The first commercial 3D printers were slow, complicated and expensive, and were not immediately embraced by the manufacturing industry (Lipson and Kurman 10). In recent years, however, advances in technology via the Internet, computer applications and 3D software has provided the innovation to make 3D printing more accessible and less expensive as a method of producing physical objects (Morehead).

The first phase of the 3D printing process involves the creation of a 3D model via CAD (computer-aided-design) software or photogrammetric software such as Agisoft Photoscan Professional. From the design file, “[s]pecialized software slices this model into cross-sectional layers, creating a computer file that is sent to the AM machine” (Campbell et al. 3). Thereafter, the AM machine “squirts out or solidifies powdered, molten or liquid material into a specific flat pattern” (Lipson and Kurman 12). Once the first layer “solidifies, the 3D ‘print head’ returns and forms another thin layer on top of the first one” (Lipson and Kurman 12). It continues this process until the object is produced. There are different techniques used in AM technologies, and ”range from jetting a binder into a polymeric powder (3D Printing), using a UV (ultraviolet) laser to harden a photosensitive polymer (Stereolithography), to using a laser to selectively melt metal or polymeric powder (Laser Sintering)” (Campbell et al. 3).


Generalized Additive Manufacturing Process (Campbell et al. 3).


Santos et al. suggest that “digitisation and annotation of 3D cultural heritage [is] the logical next step towards sustainable heritage preservation” (1). The production of 3D models of cultural heritage artefacts complements other documentation and 2D records. It is also a method for showcasing an artefact that is fragile or damaged through natural causes. Additionally, 3D data has been used “to create virtual exhibition designs, both for individual display cases and whole exhibits” (Wachowiak and Karas 157).  Producing a replica of an original artefact via 3D modeling and 3D printing allows for access to an object which is too fragile to be handled, and allows for an object to be loaned out while the original remains under protection, consequently, this also decreases insurance costs (Santos et al. 2). Neumüller et al., infer that the 3D printing of cultural heritage artefacts allows for “ways to reintegrate touch, and other non-retinal senses into our cultural experiences” (121). The replication of cultural artefacts via 3D printing also provides a cultural artefact experience for individuals who are blind or with poor eye sight (Neumüller et al. 125).

In Ireland, there are various 3D printing services such as 3D Printing Ireland and U3D, both based in Dublin. Autodesk 123D also partner with 3D printing services that support their Apps such as i.Materialise, who allow a user to upload a 3D model on their website, for 3D printing and shipment. In 2014, Maynooth University Library took steps to providing a 3D service, thus, this is the most convenient service for me to choose for submitting a design file for 3D printing. I easily exported a STL file from the 3D model of the statue (second case study) processed in Agisoft PhotoScan for the purpose of 3D printing.

In conclusion, while 3D printing is a relatively new technology, it has advanced from being costly and complicated to being accessible and cost-effective in a few decades. It is now being used in the cultural heritage sector for the purpose of preservation of an original artefact and to provide a multi-sensory experience.


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