Can you 3D print a Lightblub?
In my last post I discussed the difficulties of scanning a light bulb. Its transparent, and this causes quite a few problems with 3D scanning technology.
But we managed sort of, so now I’m going to discuss the process of turning the digital scan into a 3D printed object.
The chances are you already know all about 3D printing and the potential it offers museums in numerous ways. If not. Liz Neely and Miriam Langer’s Museum and the Web 2013 paper Please Feel the Museum: The Emergence of 3D Printing and Scanning is a good place to start, as is the Collections Trust post are we ready for 3D printing?
The 3D scanning of a historical light bulb from the UCL Science and Engineering collection raised a number of challenges that museum face when wanting to scan their objects, but we held an rather ‘suck it and see’ attitude and wanted to test out the possibilities. A quick and dirty action research approach as a means to understand the technological potential.
A point of note, there are really three steps to 3D printing; scanning, modelling and printing. Due to our novice status in the 3D printing world (and the time we had available), we pretty much skipped the modelling phase. Hindsight suggests we should haven’t done that. The scans we produced were not faultless, but scans can be cleaned up using free tools (see my earlier post about my 3D printed head – where MeshMixer was used to fix gaps in the models). A nice free tool is MeshMixer which has built-in tools to help identify gaps in the scanned mesh and can auto-fix these. MeshMixer is by AutoDesk and is free to download. http://www.meshmixer.com/download.html
We used a MakerBot: Replicator 2 to print our light bulbs. UCL CASA kindly let us experiment with their Replicator 2. If you look carefully you should be able to see my 3D printed head in the photo.
This uses heated plastic as a raw printing material and recreates objects from the scanned mesh files using a moving nozzle which melts the plastic and repeatedly plots layers molten plastic on top of each other to form a matrix.
3D printing is a fairly temperamental process. Because the plastic reaches incredibly high temperatures and the printer has to run for a long time it can be a dangerous to leave it unattended. So you can spend a long time watching the printing process. Which is fun to start off with, but it soon gets really really dull. This light bulb took about 3 hours to print.
The final product:
Over all we were quite impressed with the final product. It isn’t a bad representation. I still don’t think we can call it a replica but it definitely looks like a lightbulb.
Once we had our printed objects, we did a couple of workshops in the Grant Museum and Sidmouth Museum, and talked to lots of people about 3D printing and whether creating new objects in this way can encourage a closer inspection and deeper understanding of historical museum objects. Overall, all the visitors we spoke to were really interested in the process of 3D printing, many had heard of it, but had not seen or more importantly held a 3D printed object in real life. But does 3D printing create a level of deeper engagement with the original museum object? It certainly provoked visitors to look closely at the original and the 3D printed object, but I’m not sure if a deeper understanding of the historical objects was reached. But there is definite potential there, which we want to explore in the future.
Despite the relative rough and ready approach, we really learnt a lot, and the process provoked a lot of questions about how museums are responding to 3D printing.