3d printers

Computer models and 3D printers aid in the accurate reconstruction of early life

from the magazine

Prehistoric animals were often nothing more than a few fragments of bones, teeth, or bits of skull. Digital models and 3D printers are increasingly being used to reconstruct a dinosaur or mammoth from these insignificant remains. Will old technologies become obsolete in the future? We asked the experts.

Due to the move of the Science Center to Delft, it is now in storage and will soon go to Naturalis for a few months. But then it will again get a nice place in the new TU Delft Science Center: Skull 21, the skull of Triceratops prorsus.

Between 66 and 68 million years ago, it was a stocky (tank-sized) herbivorous dinosaur head from Wyoming in the United States. At least part of the head. The Skull 21 was built not only from bone millions of years ago, but also from layers of plastic taken from a 3D printer during this century.

digital model

Digital designer Javid Josch from Rotterdam and scientists from the Natural History Museum and the Naturalis Research Institute in Leiden reconstructed the dinosaur skull as faithfully as possible by first creating a 3D digital model in which the bony parts original fit perfectly, then printing the missing parts.

“It’s really the third reconstruction of the animal,” says Joshish. Skull 21 was excavated in Wyoming in 1891, then reconstructed there and shipped to the Netherlands in the late 1950s. However, something went wrong during the transfer, so the skull is ultimately taken out of the packaging in the form of a hundred fragments.

Paleontologist Peter Kruzinga, curator of minerals at the Delft University of Technology, reformulated the puzzle in 1957. With current knowledge, its reconstruction could be improved.

3D scans

Then the researchers got to work. They tore down Cruzinga’s work, rummaged through their dinosaur catalogs, examined the skulls of other Triceratops, received 3D scans, and began digital modeling so they could create a suitable model.

“We used two other, more complete Triceratops skulls as an example,” says Joshish. “We picked the anchor points on it, like the horn tips, the top of the neck shell, and the TMJs, and then I started calculating the proportions.”

They turned out to be very different from Skull 21, after which the team made significant design changes. Then it was all about adjusting, measuring and digitally sculpting until the puzzle was solved again. Then print, mill, drill, glue and solder to reassemble.

Bone surface structure was distilled from 1500 images of real bones. Working with restorer Aart Walen of Naturalis, Jooshesh built a new version of the Skull 21 with a longer nose than its predecessor, larger neck guard and more outward facing horns.

A new generation of dinosaur structures

Dinosaur expert Pasha van Pellert with skull print
Tyrannosaurus rex for dinosaur
Nagasaki Museum.

With this upgrade, Skull 21 joins a new generation of dinosaur building, replacing traditional craftsmanship with computer models and 3D printing.

Triceratops horridus Dirk, one of Naturalis’ masterpieces, is also partly made of plastic bones. Some of them are mirrored parts of Dirk himself, as the bone or skull fragment was only on one side of the beast.

It also relates to other Triceratopsen bones that have been scanned and digitized. “Often the bones are quite deformed due to ground pressure,” says mathematician and dinosaur expert Pasha van Pelert, who took on much of this work. “We fixed that with a computer model.”

Want to know more about printed dinosaurs?

The full story can be read in the September issue of De Ingenieur. Buy the digital edition for €7.50, or get – at a whopping 25% off – a 12-issue digital annual subscription for €69.

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Text: Marlis Terre Fordy
Opening image: Reconstruction of an old-fashioned Triceratops in Remy Bakker’s studio. Photo by Remy Bakker.

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