Own a T. Rex With 3D imaging as Venus de Milo gets her arms back

  • The Smithsonian Institution will soon release a scan of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that can be printed in 3-D at home.

    The Smithsonian Institution will soon release a scan of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that can be printed in 3-D at home. File photo

By Olga Kharif
Bloomberg News
Updated 4/8/2015 8:15 PM

T. rex buffs take note. The Smithsonian Institution will soon release a scan of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton that can be printed in 3-D at home.

The Smithsonian is among museums around the world that are using 3-D scanning and printing to help restore and preserve collections and make art and artifacts more accessible.


In July, the Smithsonian American Art Museum will display 19th century sculptor Hiram Powers' Greek Slave along with a video of how it was 3-D scanned. Visitors will be able to download the image and make copies from home on 3-D printers, which are becoming more popular as their price tags drop.

"In a way, it's democratizing the collection," said Karen Lemmey, curator of sculpture at the museum in Washington.

Galleries are using the imaging to collect data on objects that can later be used to construct and print digital three- dimensional models. While less than 1 percent of all art globally has been scanned, the process is gaining traction, according to scanning software maker Autodesk Inc. And while the quality of replicas is improving, it's not to the degree where there's much concern about forgeries, experts agree.

The Smithsonian Institution has scanned about 40 items since 2013, such as a wooden boat sunk during the American Revolutionary War and a life mask of Abraham Lincoln. About two dozen scans have been posted online, and 25,000 data sets have been downloaded, according to the museum. The most popular: a Woolly Mammoth, with 5,000 downloads, said Guenter Waibel, director of the Digitization Program Office. Two dozen more scans will be released in coming months, including the T. rex, he said.

"The challenge we've set right now is how do we go from dozens to hundreds to thousands -- and eventually to tens of thousands of scanned objects," Waibel said in an interview.

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Destruction, Vandalism

The destruction of art in war-torn regions and vandalism in general may spur even more museums to use 3-D imaging. In February, Islamic militants demolished ancient sculptures and artifacts at a museum in the Northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Fourteen years ago, the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two giant sixth-century statues carved into a cliff in Afghanistan. Even in the Netherlands, bronze sculptures are being stolen from city squares and sold for scrap, said Tonny Beentjes, a member of the conservation faculty at the University of Amsterdam.

"3-D scanning is a preventive measure," Beentjes said. "If we take a record now, at least we have something to go back to."

Scanning software is getting faster and better, generating higher-quality 3-D models. While a 3-D scan cost thousands of dollars a few years ago, now some Autodesk software can create a basic image for free by stitching together dozens of photographs. Fraunhofer Institute in Munich has developed a conveyor-like process for scanning museum objects in minutes instead of hours. The scans replace more costly and potentially damaging copying methods -- such as dipping sculptures in solidifying materials to make casts.

So far, the technology isn't stirring anxiety about misuse in the art world.

"It would be much easier to fake money than to fake art," said Adam Lowe, founder of digital art preservation company Factum Arte. "It's much more difficult to fake a painting with 3-D printing technology than to do it by hand" with a paintbrush, he said.


While nonexperts might be hoodwinked by a fake, anyone with knowledge of oil painting would quickly know the difference, said Tim Zaman, a researcher at Delft University of Technology, who with Canon Inc. subsidiary Oce has created copies of paintings by van Gogh and Rembrandt.

Hard to Fake

3-D-printed paintings lack the opacity and reflection of oils, which are covered with lacquer, Zaman said. Sculpture copies might have different colors and textures than the original because of the limited materials available for printers. That is changing quickly though, with an array of about 300 today, up from about 50 six years ago, said Hugh Evans, a vice president at printer maker 3-D Systems Corp. Materials range from biodegradable PLA plastic to bronze to chocolate.

Shipments of 3-D printers are soaring as the cost of devices has dropped. Some consumer models are selling for as low as $500, according to researcher Gartner Inc. About 61,600 printers shipped globally in 2013. That number will grow by a compounded average of 107 percent a year through 2018, Gartner estimated.

The largest publicly traded 3-D printer makers, 3-D Systems, Stratasys Ltd. and ExOne Co., have seen their stocks plunge in the past year, mainly on concern about new competitors like Hewlett-Packard Co. entering the market. Last year, Hewlett- Packard said its HP Multi Jet Fusion printer will be 10 times faster than existing technologies when it becomes available in 2016.

Renaissance Altarpiece

Imaging has opened a world of possibilities for restorers. Beentjes, at the University of Amsterdam, used a scan to rebuild a leg on a vandalized Rodin sculpture. He also fixed a Roman mask missing a left cheek and ear by scanning the right side of the face and mirror-imaging it.

Factum Arte, based in Madrid, is using 3-D scanning techniques to recreate an altarpiece from Bologna, Italy. It was divided and sold in the 1700s, and its 16 painted panels are now at nine different museums in Europe and the U.S.

"We are gradually recording all of them to be able to reconstruct the altarpiece," said Lowe, whose team also built a replica of Tutankhamun's tomb that opened to the public last year in Luxor, Egypt.

San Diego-based artist Cosmo Wenman used Autodesk software to scan the armless Venus de Milo, a star attraction at the Louvre in Paris, and is in the process of 3-D printing a replica with appendages attached for a client.

"The obvious thing to do with these technologies is to go copy my favorite existing works of art," Wenman said in an interview. "I can create novel adaptations of them."

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