Printing the impossible

From saving tortoises to cloning artifacts, 3D printing is breaking new ground

We’ve heard about how 3D printing can replicate objects with stunning exactitude. There's almost nothing that can't be scanned, digitized and recreated.

But when copies are able to transcend originals, it’s about more than just dazzling technology.

3D printing is taking on ever more complicated tasks.

Say you want to help a defenceless animal avoid a predator. Or you have an idea for a sculpture that’s just too complex to carve. Or maybe you want to preserve an immovable object and photographing it just isn’t good enough.

This is where 3D printing can push the boundaries of problem-solving.

Seeing in three dimensions

David Didur flaunts a grown-out soul patch, floppy silver hair and an impeccable suit jacket. He radiates a creative vibe, but his job description strays from that of a typical designer. As Didur likes to say, he turns atoms into bits — and then turns those bits back into atoms.

(Here's what part of that process looks like.)

Didur is the design director at Toronto print shop Think2Thing, and his team recently embarked on an unusual project: taking a large pile of ivory and turning it into plaster.

'We run the shop the way we run a studio'

In recent years, hundreds of elephants in Kenya have been killed for their ivory tusks.

Poached illegally, some of these tusks are snatched from the black market by Kenyan officials and burned each year in a fiery public stand against the ivory trade.

In 2016, nearly 100 tonnes were doused in kerosene and set alight. But not before being documented by a couple of intrepid photographers, including Canadian Ed Burtynsky, who is also Think2Thing's co-founder.

Burtynsky circled the tusk pile with high-speed cameras hoisted on sticks. For posterity, the Think2Thing team wanted to create a physical model back in their Toronto studio to demonstrate the scope of species endangerment.

Stitching those images together back in the lab, Didur's team created a digital model and then printed a replica in full colour, its minute textures mimicking the jumble of ivory that once existed half a world away.

Didur's copy is so precise that a fingertip can detect ridges on the ivory's surface.

Bringing a photograph — or, in this case, 2,000 of them — to life in a detailed 3D model recreates the cognitive experience of encountering an object firsthand, Didur argues.

“People don’t visualize in three dimensions very well. It’s not a common skill,” says Didur. “Once it sits in real space, in real scale … [people] begin to understand and see things they hadn’t realized before.”

Through touch, the enormity of the poaching problem comes to life.

"A 3D experience is so much fuller. It evokes a different relationship with the object," he says. "It allows us to see deeper into the nuance. I think we’re more empathetic to the atmosphere and environment."

Copies so realistic, even the birds are fooled

The Mojave Desert. (Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images)

Deep in the Mojave Desert, a baby tortoise cracks through the shell of its egg.

A baby tortoise breaks out of its shell. (Tim Shields)

A baby tortoise breaks out of its shell. (Tim Shields)

Beyond the nearest dune, a raven cracks open another tortoise shell — but instead of finding juicy meat, there’s only the foul taste of bait.

This is a scenario envisioned by a team of biologists and technicians at Hardshell Labs, a U.S. company determined to save the sand tortoise from predatory birds.

Using 3D printing, they've developed copies of these reptiles so realistic that even the ravens, with their sharp eyes and sharper beaks, are fooled.

Historically, the sand tortoise had a good chance of surviving to adulthood. But as cities in California and Arizona expanded, so did areas inhabited by scavengers.

“With man comes garbage,” says Didur. “And with garbage come ravens.”

Hardshell Labs, which also uses robots and lasers to chase away ravens, turned to Didur for a lifelike decoy with a shell thickness comparable to the real thing.

Tim Shields, the tortoise defender who helms Hardshell Labs, hopes the decoy will allow the babies to escape to safety as the ravens peck away at the fakes.

The printable stand-in might train the ravens to find a different food source, saving the threatened sand tortoise from possible extinction.

"My whole career, we have been doing forensic investigation of crime scenes [of] dead baby tortoises, usually without a heck of a lot of other evidence," Shields says.

He wanted to set up a sting operation using motion-activated cameras. "3D printing seemed an obvious choice," he said.

Shields has been tinkering with adding "aversive" parts to the decoy, like the aforementioned repulsive bait. He's hoping one day to devise a model that will shoo the ravens away for good.

Do copied artifacts have the same power as originals?

The Musqueam First Nation in Vancouver has also been experimenting with 3D printing.

In Musqueam tradition, artifacts are sacred. Carvings must not be shown in public.

Copies, however, are mostly fair game.

Didur pulls out a turtle-shaped bowl, heavy as stone with the same chalky feel. Except this one is made entirely of plaster.

The original bowls used in Musqueam ceremonies and for mixing medicine can only be viewed by people who have proper training in Musqueam rituals.

They are considered too "spiritually dangerous to display," says Susan Roy, an assistant professor of Indigenous history at the University of Waterloo in southwestern Ontario.

Roy and Didur paired up to make imitations that can be handled by researchers and pupils in the process of learning about Musqueam tradition.

Printed copies of a Musqueam knife and pendant. (Susan Roy)

Printed copies of a Musqueam knife and pendant. (Susan Roy)

Didur thinks you can still feel the power of a copied artifact, even though it lacks the essence of the original.

But not everyone feels the same.

He recalls speaking with a friend who works with high-resolution images, a fan of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh, who visited New York City's Museum of Modern Art, where masterpieces are often protected from air and moisture by glass frames.

“He says to me, ‘I’m standing there in front of Starry Night, and there’s glass over it and glare, and I can’t get up close. I can hardly see the thing. Yet I’m thrilled to be there.’”

Does an ersatz artwork, however realistic, have the same fundamental identity, the same powerful presence?

“The argument is, does it have spirit? Is it enlivened? I don’t know,” says Didur.

He gets around the debate by reframing it.

"Instead of talking about copying and reproduction," Didur says, "I just call it a portrait."

Impossible shapes

Didur likens his shop to a Renaissance sculpting studio, where everybody has their forte.

The scanning technician knows exactly how to copy real life onto the screen.

The printing supervisor, at the other end of the process, combines materials the same way a pastry chef mixes dough. That is, he only knows it’s perfect for printing by how it feels running through his hands.

“People have this vision that you press a button and something comes out the other end, like in Star Trek,” Didur says. “That’s not true at all.”

The design process means slicing the imagined product into layered cross-sections. Printing can take hours; the setting period, days.

The undertaking isn't easy, but its precision means that even the most complex equations can be given a physical form.

(Wenzel Jamnitzer, Perspectiva Corporum Regularium)

(Wenzel Jamnitzer, Perspectiva Corporum Regularium)

These odd shapes are called Platonic solids, first devised in 16th-century Germany by an inventor named Wenzel Jamnitzer.

He could draw the polyhedrons, but in the absence of a computer-guided machine, he couldn’t bring them to life.

“They would take months, if not years, to hand-manufacture,” says Didur.

At Think2Thing, the team works primarily with plaster.

The printing process, called “powder bed fusion,” injects a binding liquid into a tray of plaster one hair’s-width layer at a time. The binder hardens and cures over two days. When it’s ready, the object is excavated, washed and polished.

(Watch the excavation of a 3D-printed bowl.)

3D printing isn’t a way to mass manufacture items from your living room, Didur says. It’s a means of tackling solution-resistant problems.

"If you can imagine it," says Didur, "it’s possible to do it."

Photos, text and videos by Malone Mullin