Founded in 1846, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) in Brussels is home to over 250 research scientists, 38 million specimens and, since 1869, the Lier mammoth – the first skeleton of its kind ever to be displayed to the public in Western Europe.
Discovered, as its name suggests, in the municipality of Lier in Antwerp, the skeleton is still one of only a few full mammoth skeletons in existence. This rarity makes it of vital scientific importance, not to mention a thrilling exhibit for natural history enthusiasts the world over. With this in mind, the re-opening of the City Museum of Lier presented an exciting opportunity. The original bones couldn’t be moved from Brussels, but they could be recreated.
Led by the local Kiwanis community group, a team dedicated to preserving the history of Lier approached Materialise with an exciting idea: use 3D printing to create an exact, life-size replica. In other words, apply modern techniques to bring Lier’s prehistoric resident back home. Around 1,260 printing hours and 320 bones later, the ‘Lier Mammoth 2.0’ was born.
The ‘bones’ are coated with several layers of paint in different shades, plus a protective coat of varnish
With a length of 2 meters, the tusks took up the full capacity of our Mammoth Stereolithography build platform
The bare (big) bones of the challenge
When it comes to producing an exact replica of a mammoth, one thing is clear. Size matters. Recreating over 300 bones, some of which are over 2 meters in length (bigger than a fully grown adult!), is no small feat. Coupled with the need to avoid any invasive or potentially damaging work on the original bones, this project presented a unique challenge.
“When the skeleton first came to the museum back in 1869, innovative engineering meant that we didn’t have to drill into, or in any way damage a single bone in order to display the mammoth in its entirety,” explains Dr Mietje Germonpré, a paleontologist at the RBINS who worked closely with Materialise on the project. “We certainly didn’t want to risk its natural integrity in any way with this new endeavor.”
The same kind of creative thinking and engineering went into the replica’s creation. Rather than employing an external support structure as used by the original Lier mammoth, the plan was to build a largely invisible internal support structure that would really bring the model to life.
The design freedom and precision possible with 3D printing made it an obvious choice. As Dr. Germonpré notes, “3D Printing is increasingly proving to be an extremely useful tool in the field of paleontology, allowing us, for example, to study fossils without damaging the precious originals, and collaborate virtually on the same fossil with colleagues around the world.” But how could they print bones as large as the originals?
“We first introduced our Mammoth Stereolithography printers in 2001 to realize projects that require extra-large capacity. With a printer bed dimension of 2100 x 700 x 800mm, they are perfect for ‘single build’ part production”
— Gertjan Brienen, project manager
Large format printing put to the test
That question was answered, appropriately enough, by Materialise’s Mammoth Stereolithography printers, along with project manager Gertjan Brienen and what eventually became a team of 19 people, including engineers, CAD specialists, post-production professionals, and the institute’s own experts including Dr Germonpré.
“We first introduced our Mammoth Stereolithography printers in 2001 to realize projects that require extra-large capacity. With a printer bed dimension of 2100 x 700 x 800mm, they are perfect for ‘single build’ part production,” says Brienen. “At the time, we were thinking of applications such as automotive dashboard prototypes, architectural scale models, bespoke large parts for industrial or manufacturing environments, that kind of thing. But bones? That was a new challenge, one we were honored and excited to take on.”
Materialise’s Mammoth Stereolithography machines deposit 1/10th of a millimeter of UV-sensitive liquid resin at a time, hardened selectively by lasers to exactly match build specifications. As well as creating tailored supports to allow scientifically accurate ‘bone shape’ development and laser sintering smaller bones (including the mammoth’s vertebrae) and connection points, the skeleton would take a total of nine machines just over a month to print. But before that could happen, dimensional data had to be captured, then optimized for 3D printing. “With just two months to go until the launch date,” adds Brienen, “every step had to be planned meticulously.”
The mammoth project brought together a team of 19 people, including engineers, finishers and painters, and a paleontologist
“With a production timeframe of just 7 weeks, we’ve created a new piece of history. One that will give generations of visitors a great deal of enjoyment. It utilized all areas of our expertise, from print optimization and design engineering to production and finishing, which makes Materialise such a unique player in the 3D printing industry. And it was definitely a team effort – we couldn’t have done it without the amazing team of consulting experts and scientists that worked with us. Even though it’s all about preserving the past, this project is the perfect example of the futuristic applications 3D Printing has today. And for me, it’s a great feeling to see a customer successfully realize a big idea — literally! — through collaboration with us.”
– Brienen concludes
Got big ideas of your own? See what 3D Printing can do for you!
If you think your project is too complicated, too early-stage, or simply too large for 3D Printing, chances are that one of our project managers would love to help you print it anyway. Give us an idea of what you’re looking for and let us handle the rest.