Introducing a Mammoth 3D Printing Project

Largest SLA project ever will see Materialise print full-scale, scientifically accurate reconstruction.

Mammoth of Lier on display at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. (Image source: Wikipedia.)

Mammoth of Lier on display at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. (Image source: Wikipedia.)

Since 1869, the Mammoth of Lier has been on display at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Almost 150 years later, this first mammoth skeleton to be displayed in Western Europe is returning to its roots in Lier – albeit in a significantly more modern form.

Working in close collaboration with the museum in Brussels, the entire skeleton will be scanned, 3D printed by Materialise, and then mounted on a quasi-invisible internal structure. Starting in October of 2018, the 3D printed mammoth will be on display in the city of Lier, Belgium, where the mammoth was originally discovered. The project is being touted as the company’s largest stereolithography project yet.

The team of engineers encountered significant challenges while reconstructing the mammoth. Every one of the mammoth’s 320 bones was scanned at the museum in Brussels, after which the skeleton was digitally reconstructed in close collaboration with their resident paleontologist to achieve the highest degree of anatomical accuracy.

Each scan also needed to be cleaned up and prepared for the 3D printer, since a scan simply produces a 3D image, rather than a structurally sound 3D form that is suitable for 3D Printing. The team used Materialise Magics software for this step.

Instead of using the original 19th century exterior mounting system, a more sophisticated interior mount structure made of carbon will be created and integrated inside the plastic bones. This meant that in the digital phase, the project’s engineers had to think about how to fit this carbon structure within the bones, integrating entry and exit holes in the bones for the carbon tubes. 

For the modular carbon structure, Materialise drew on the experience of its daughter company RapidFit in the automotive tooling sphere.  The result is a sturdy and lightweight structure weighing in at a mere 300 kg in total.

The bones will be printed on nine of the aptly named Mammoth Stereolithography printers at Materialise, which are specially designed with a printer bed dimension of 220 x 70 x 80 to realize projects that require extra-large printer capacity.

The company is uniquely capable of a project of this scale, able to offer a full backbone of 3D printing services, starting from optimizing the scans for the printers, engineering the mount structure inside the bones and printing the mammoth on the most suitable 3D printing technology from the company’s printing facility. The printing process applies 1/10th of a millimeter of resin at a time, which means the mammoth will take more than one month to print. After printing finishes, the printed bones will still need to be painted with a combination of different paints, textures and lacquers to ensure the bones match the original skeleton as precisely as possible.

“The scale of the project is challenging, particularly because we had to bring different experts together, including engineers, paleontologists and finishing specialists, and align our vision of the finished model, all while meeting tight deadlines,” said Gertjan Brienen, project manager at Materialise.

Gertian also points out that the original skeleton on display includes some inaccuracies, which reflect the level of knowledge at the time the skeleton was originally mounted 150 years ago. With the capabilities afforded by detailed 3D scanning and 3D printing, he describes how the project was able to improve the accuracy of the new model.

“One example is the length of its tail, which we now know is shorter than initially thought,” Gertian said. “The original mammoth skeleton is also missing a few bones, including its left tusk. We mirrored the right tusk and recreated it in Materialise 3-matic to achieve a more precise replica than the wooden tusk that was used to complete the original skeleton. The broken upper jaw was also restored accurately by mirroring a part of the original bone structure. This means the 3D-printed mammoth will be more scientifically accurate than the original.”

Though this is the largest 3D printing project of this type that the company has taken part in, the company has previously worked on archaeological projects including 3D printed reconstructions of the bodies of King Tutankhamun and Ötzi the Ice Mummy. For the Mammoth of Lien project, they worked closely with the resident paleontologist of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Dr. Mietje Germonpré.

“3D Printing is increasingly proving to be an extremely useful tool in the field of paleontology, allowing us to study fossils without damaging the precious originals, and to collaborate virtually on the same fossil with colleagues around the world. Working on the first entire mammoth skeleton ever to be 3D printed has been a unique experience,” said Germonpré.

For more unique and exciting ways to use 3D printing, check out these stories:

Solar-Powered 3D Printing System Gives Colombians Access to Additive Manufacturing

Branch Technology Creates “Largest 3D-Printed Structure”

Six 3D Printing Companies Changing the Future of Humans in Space