Printing Dinosaurs: Idaho Virtualization Lab leads a “3-D revolution”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

ISU houses the Idaho Virtualization lab in the Idaho Museum of Natural History, which is on the leading edge of the 3-D printing revolution in digitizing and printing fossils, according to museum director Leif Tapanila.

The program has been going for 15 years, and Tapanila said in those years, the rest of the country has begun to recognize the value of digitizing and 3-D printing fossils

“There’s groups of museums across the country that are involved with this 3-D revolution, the idea that we can give access and discoverability to all of these hidden treasures across the country,” Tapanila said.

Jesse Pruitt, lab manager of the Idaho Virtualization Lab, said his is the only program in the country that goes to the extent it does in 3-D printing fossils.

“Everybody does a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but no one really does [everything we offer],” he said.

Other labs in the country are more research-driven, while the Idaho Virtualization Lab operates more uniquely, Pruitt said.

“We do our own internal research, we digitize our collections and we also do other people’s research as well,” he said.

Other labs generally don’t perform research for other universities, according to Pruitt.

The lab is “outpacing everybody else in the country in terms of output and quality,” Pruitt said.

It’s unusual to see a small state school house this kind of program, he added.

“It’s not something you see at a smaller university,” Pruitt said. “For this to exist at the level that it exists here is pretty remarkable in my mind.”

The Idaho Visualization Lab is also one of the only programs to have a large online database of the 3-D models it creates. The Smithsonian, one of the only online collections rivaling his lab’s, has around 200-300 models in its database, while the Idaho Visualization Lab has around 3,000 models, Pruitt said.

Museum professionals consider 3-D printing a safer process than casts and molds because there’s less of a chance of the fossil being damaged. Pruitt said there have been models the lab has made of damaged or fragile skeletons that they never would’ve been able to make a cast of because of how likely they were to break.

Another advantage to 3-D printing fossils is that they don’t have to be shipped. Any museum with access to the database can 3-D print their own fossils.

Pruitt estimates that it will take another 15-20 years for the work the lab performs to become mainstream in the rest of the country.

“3-D scanning and 3-D printing are gonna be the future of how we do this,” he said.

Tapanila said he’s thrilled to be a part of a program like this.

According to Tapanila, there are an estimated three billion historical specimens in the United States hidden away in museum collections for preservation.

“That’s three billion objects that could be used more broadly if people knew about them, could access, search, and do research on them,” he said.

The Idaho Virtualization Lab has taken the opportunity to spread knowledge about the processes it uses by educating middle schoolers in the area by building their own dinosaur at Dino Camp.

During the summer, the students were trained to use the software Pruitt and his lab use to digitize and 3-D print an oryctodromeus dinosaur, the most common dinosaur found in Idaho.

That dinosaur is now a part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“That’s the kind of transformation that this kind of technology allows us to bring to the public, to educate kids and give opportunities,” Tapanila said.

Tapanila said members of the Idaho Virtualization Lab are working hard to make their work even more available to the research community and the public.

“We’re part of that solution, of making [this research] available to people,” Tapanila said. “It’s really exciting to be a part of that.”