Christian Sidor is a paleontologist at the Burke Museum in Seattle. In front of him are some 220-million-year-old bones.
They belong to an animal called a Shuvosaurus. This is probably the most complete skeletons of one of these things in the entire world. But it’s still missing a bunch of stuff. Which, in paleontology, is pretty much par for the course.
It used to be that when you had empty spaces in a skeleton, you’d pay a sculptor to fashion the missing pieces out of plaster. Now, researchers are more and more just printing the pieces they need.
Meredith Rivin is a collections manager and keeper of the 3D printers at the Burke. One of the printers — which has affectionately been named Printy McPrintface — is working on a mammoth right now, while its cousin prints Shuvosaurus bones in another building.
She picks up a lumpy off-white bone to show me the kind of stuff it can do.
“This is a humorous of a dolphin ancestor," Rivin says. "It’s a holotype, so we have just one specimen. This particular specimen is also going to be 3D constructed so we can hang it from the ceiling.”
So, much of paleontology is like putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle, when three fourths of the pieces got lost, say, a quarter-billion years ago. But Sidor says the printing technology is letting them see the whole picture come together in new ways.
In this conversation, we hear about the benefits to 3D printing, not only for those who are making the 3D prints, but for other researchers around the world who can benefit from it.