3D Printing and Scanning in the Lab: Some Points on Practice & on Ethics

Recently our anthropology lab purchased a 3D printer and a 3D scanner. This acquisition was motivated by the increasing use of these technologies in archaeology, museums, classrooms, libraries, and every other place where learning is seen as something that is a) super fun and b) hands on. As a small department with a limited budget, 3D printing also seemed like an affordable way to supplement our existing teaching collections. One of my roles as lab instructor is to make sure we have sufficient resources for our students to engage with in the lab; this can mean having enough copies for each student or small group of students to examine (e.g., twenty human skeletons) and/or to have enough different versions of something to represent variation (e.g., a left humerus for a human, a chimpanzee, a bushbaby, a baboon, etc.).  As lab instructor I’ve also been brainstorming (but have yet to implement) ways to include these tools in lab activities and assignments. For example, if I produce a high quality 3D scan for one of our os coxae to create an open access 3D model of it, all of our students can access it on their personal electronic devices; in Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) this model would likely just be used for learning the bones of the body, while in Anthropology 390 (Human Osteology) it could be used for learning methods of sex and/or age estimation and for assessing the use of 3D models versus real or physical copies with these techniques.

So while I have many ideas but not enough time play with these new toys as much as I would like, nor integrate them into classroom learning beyond show-and-tell, I have been able to do some printing.

Femur of H. naledi.

One of the first successful prints I had was the femur of Homo naledi (pictured above with the rafts and supports still in place). It seemed like the only fitting selection as the open access publication of the 3D files of H. naledi was what motivated us to look into getting 3D printing equipment in the first place.  I’ve also printed off a talus, vertebrae, metatarsals, and an articulated hand (pictured below) for this species. We’ve been using them in our Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) labs where we set up stations focused on comparative primate and hominin anatomy. Students examine specimens (say a bunch of femora) and then make interpretations and inferences as to why the variations are present (e.g., locomotion, dietary adaptation, reliance on vision versus olfaction, etc.).  We introduced the printed H. naledi specimens to our station regarding locomotion this term. Our students compared these prints with casts of limbs representing quadrupeds, knuckle walkers, brachiators, and bipeds, and asked to interpret the pattern of locomotion used by the unknown hominin. Students were not only excited by having these recent finds to examine (once we revealed which hominin they represented), they loved that the specimens were printed in our own lab; as such this has proven an excellent means to discuss not just the printed specimens but classroom technologies and pedagogy with them.

Articulated hand of H. naledi. Watching this hand emerge from the print deck was awesome.

We’ve also used our printer and scanner for outreach. I try to post the print process (and fails) on my social media feeds; I rely heavily on the open access models my peers around the world share on their sites, which brings specimens from around the world into our lab. For our annual Open House I worked with our Social Media guru to do a time lapse capture of a scaled-down model of a human skill (seen below in its cleaned and finished form), which was used in a video during our annual Open House. We held lab tours throughout the day allowing visitors to see and handle the skull after watching it print in the video; many were both surprised to learn that what they saw happen in 30 seconds took closer to three hours, and that we are striving to integrate these kinds of tools and technologies into our lab courses.

Star of MacEwan’s Open House video.

While we do also have a scanner, I haven’t been as successful using it to create models for our existing materials. I had the opportunity to scan a Folsom point recovered from a site in Alberta but failed in my attempt; at least it represents a promise of this technology – to connect with archaeologists around our province to scan and print materials (including distributing the models for wider use). While I could blame the material and the quality of our scanner for my fail on this attempt, it is honestly because I still have a lot to learn in terms of using not just the scanner and printer but the excellent free software that’s out there for editing files. I do think my students appreciate my transparency in discussing these print and scan fails, an example of a print fail is pictured below, as they see that I am, and will always be, a learner in the lab. I guess this means I’m using the scanner and printer to model behaviour in addition to objects.

An example of a print fail. The raft, a stable base for the printed object that is removed after printing during the finishing process, detached from the print deck creating a mess. Luckily I monitor any prints closely so stopped it before a) I wasted too much filament and/or b) the printer broke.

Overall I’m very satisfied with the printer and scanner. I do not think this was a “trendy technology” purchase; I do believe that the applicability of this technology to our courses and in our lab will remain high for years to come. However, there are ethical considerations whenever any new technology is introduced into the classroom.

Recently I became involved in a discussion on Twitter regarding the sale of replicas of the Ancient One that led to the question of what our response to reproductions should be in light of the rise of 3D printing and modelling technologies in the classroom. These two topics are not unrelated. In light of replicas of the Ancient One being sold, we must carefully consider WHAT we reproduce. Should the Ancient One be replicated? I say absolutely not. The case of the Ancient One is easily one the most controversial and contentious cases in North American archaeology and anthropology for so many reasons and that alone should make anyone take pause before disseminating reproductions of him. Some objects should not be replicated nor printed but what those are must be established on an ongoing and object-by-object basis.  In some cases the reproduction of human remains can be perfectly acceptable when done with approvals and informed consent. This means we ask before we reproduce. We make explicit what the purpose, use, and audience(s) of the models and prints will be. We agree to make models open access or shared or closed on a scan by scan basis. We make plans for the curation of prints and of models – both short and long term – including what to do if the original is repatriated. Finally we cannot profit from these models nor the prints, especially if the item should a) not have been replicated in the first place and b) has been repatriated. April Beisaw aptly tweeted it is “inappropriate to profit from sales of something that was given back. Is the repatriation incomplete if reproducing info retained?”. The Ancient One was repatriated and reburied back in February of this year; can we consider the repatriation complete if so much information (including replicas) of this individual are still in wide circulation. Beisaw argues “unless the tribe an item was repatriated asked for or consented to a replica, making one and using it is counter to repatriation’s ideal”; I absolutely agree.

Clearly this discussion demonstrates that replication (and research) in the context of repatriation is much more complex than what I’ve briefly addressed here but I’m simply arguing that we must be proactive in considering the ethics of 3D scanning and printing technologies in our labs and in our classrooms rather than being reactive. This is part of my hesitation in just rushing forward with using these technologies in my lab – I want to do it right. I want to be deliberate, intentional, and ethical. If nothing else these are the behaviours I want to model for my students and see them replicate as they move forward in their studies and careers.


One thought on “3D Printing and Scanning in the Lab: Some Points on Practice & on Ethics

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Weeks of May 28, 2017 and June 4, 2017 | Unwritten Histories

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