3D Printing; it’s one of those things that seems to have no limit to its various purposes. Progress is constantly being made in using it to print organs and tissues, food, and countless other objects in various areas. We had a 3D Printer when I was in high school; it was clunky and made some suspect noises whenever it was in use but it could be used to create basic mechanical parts and other objects with fairly simple shapes.
The technology is developing rapidly however; less than ten years ago 3D Printing was rarely discussed, today you can buy a 3D Printing pen. It occurred to me the other day that such technology could be quite useful in the digital humanities, both as a learning tool and as a recording tool.
In the context of learning it has several capacities. Firstly we have the “classroom” learning aspect. Let’s say a researcher out in the field finds a vase and uses pictures taken of that vase combined with software such as 123D Catch to create a 3D visual of that vase. If put through the correct software (unfortunately I’m not sure what this would be) that 3D visual could be turned into a file that could be given to a 3D printer, allowing the 3D printer to print out a to-scale (or scaled down) copy of the vase. This vase could then be used in art classrooms to show students the shapes of pottery used during certain time periods, in history or archaeology classes to demonstrate how the size and/or shape of vases and other vessels might limit or expand abilities to store water, grains, etc..; the list goes on.
With an accurate enough 3D Printer copies of this theoretical vase could even be made for study and research purposes. Instead of shipping a priceless vase halfway around the world to analyze how it was made,the styles of painting used, etc, a high-end 3D printer could print out a copy of the vase, complete with any decorations present and marks or dents left in the creation of the vase. Researchers could spend less money on shipping, and more on researching what tools could make such marks on a vase or why the vase was decorated in such-and-such a manner. Admittedly one would still need the actual vase for analysis of the vase’s composition, the composition of paints or glazes used on it, and any material residue left on the vase that could shed light on the vase’s original environment.
As a recording tool 3D Printing may also prove very helpful. Instead of creating a cast of an object via more traditional methods or desperately trying to preserve objects (that are incredibly prone to, well, not staying preserved) one could use photos and the software processes I touched on before to create 3D copies of anything from vases to clay tablets to furniture pieces. With enough time and money one could create an extensive collection of objects to act as a record even after it may become impossible to preserve the originals.
This type of record is especially interesting in that it acts as a physical record like “old-school” index cards and photos in manilla file folders, but it is a new and transformed version of this physical record. By being something that has passed through the digital and been reproduced as physical it occupies a different space than the “other” physical record. This record is not just written numbers and words, it allows one to touch what is essentially a “clone” of the object; to see what the curves and edges feel like and how it actually fits into one’s hand or sits on a table.
Perhaps this recording aspect of 3D printing is pointless; preservation methods are getting better and better and having more physical copies of an object might just become a redundant waste of money. Even without this component however, I still see 3D printing becoming an invaluable digital humanities learning tool in the years to come.