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Printing Artec dinosaur skull in 3D

Artec 3D scanners transfer objects from real life into virtual 3D. Thanks to Gian Pablo Villamil, digital design specialist and Thingiverse.com member, Artec’s scan of a dinosaur skull re-entered the physical world with the help of a 3D printer. Artec met Gian Pablo to find out more about the resurrection of the Tarbosaurus’ skull.

Artec: Gian Pablo, can you tell us a bit about the process of preparing a model for 3D printing? Which 3D printer did you use to recreate the Tarbosaurus skull?

I’ve been an early user of the Makerbot 3D printer, and am particularly interested in using it to print complex organic forms. Dinosaur skulls are especially interesting: however, due to intellectual property issues, there are very few good quality 3D scans of skulls available online. I was very pleased to discover the high quality Tarbosaurus skull on the Artec website, and set about printing a physical copy of it.

Artec: You can’t just take the 3D model and send it to the printer, right? How did you go about preparing the model for printing? Have you been using some kind of special program?

My preferred tool for preparing models for printing is Netfabb Studio Basic, a free download. Netfabb also offers a more capable professional version. This program allows scaling, slicing, rotating and preparing 3D models in a variety of formats, and is focused on 3D printing applications.

I opened the Tarbosaurus skull in Netfabb to start working on it, and immediately had a very pleasant surprise: the model was absolutely perfect, very much suitable for printing. Netfabb will scan a model for irregularities that will cause problems with printing, and highlight them. Most models that are not directly intended for 3D printing will show a variety of errors. However, the Tarbosaurus skull, and in fact, all the models from Artec, are completely free of errors.

The next step was to straighten out the skull within the bounding box. I was able to do this by rotating the model on the X & Y axes. The Makerbot has a limited print area (approximately a 4.5 inch cube), so I needed to slice the skull into segments so that they could be printed. Also, the skull has many complex details and overhangs, so I would need to print a “scaffold” to support it. Slicing the model into pieces would reduce the need for this support structure.

Artec: So, you had to virtually cut the 3D model into several parts?

Correct. Using Netfabb, I split the model horizontally into top and bottom halves, and also vertically into front and back segments. I made the cuts in such a way that any major openings in the model would be bisected, allowing room for support material, and making it possible to remove it later.

I saved each of the four segments as a separate STL file, using the Netfabb export command, and loaded them into ReplicatorG, the utility that handles printing on the Makerbot. I used the Move and Rotate commands in ReplicatorG to orient the pieces correctly. The preview screen shows the outline of a cube the size of the print area, so I could confirm that it would fit.

In order to print, the 3D model has to be converted into a series of instructions that instruct the 3D printer where to move the print head, and how much plastic to extrude. These instructions are called G-Code. I used this option in ReplicatorG, specifying options to print at high resolution (0.25mm) and using support material. I previewed the resulting codes using Pleasant3D, and everything seemed to be ok.

Artec: What kind of printing material have you been using? The printing process, how long was that?

I chose brown ABS plastic to print the skull, since it is close to the color of the original specimen. I loaded a spool of plastic on the printer, and started the job. Each piece took between 2 to 4 hours to print, without any problems.

I assembled the four pieces using cyanoacrylate glue, and pronto: a very nice looking Tarbosaurus skull to call my own.

Artec: Wow! It looks like a true dinosaur skull from a natural history museum! Is 3D printing always that easy?

The process was extremely easy, owing in great measure to the very high quality of the model from Artec. It is rare that such a detailed and complex model is so free of errors, and so easy to print. Moreover, in the world of 3D printing, getting access to scans of real-world objects is extremely important, and it is good to see a company like Artec making products that work so well with even low-cost 3D printers.

Artec: Thank you very much, Gian Pablo! A great job you did there, indeed! We hope you enjoy your Tarbosaurus skull and, who knows, maybe you feel like printing more from our 3D gallery? In any case, we wish you the best of luck with all your projects!