In my role as Digital Humanities Librarian, I manage a monthly DH newsletter for faculty on campus to share readings, events, and other DH items. In the newsletter I highlight one DH tool each month, creating a sample project and sharing my thoughts. To keep the emails short, my full thoughts will be posted here under the Tool Reviews category.
ABOUT THE TOOL
In some ways this review is less about one specific tool and more about a collection of tools or even more about a method, 3D printing. This is in part because of how many tools are required to make a 3D print and because while my library has a Prusa i3 MK3S+ my review probably could apply to a variety of 3D printers. The main collection of tools I will be covering are:
In order to test the tool I did two test prints. For these prints I used files provided by museums that have created 3D scans of their collections. My first print was the queen from the Lewis Chess Set from the British Museum and the second print was the Fonseca Bust, a portrait bust of a Flavian woman from Staten Museum for Kunst via Scan the World (both can be seen below).
HOW IT WORKS
Luckily, this project was a collaboration between me and another member of my library, Tim Kail, who manages the 3D printer. Tim was already working on building a LibGuide on how to use the 3D printer (link to come once it is published) and I was the beta-tester for it. This also meant I did not have to teach myself how to use it and the workflow was already established.
To get started users need to first decide what it is they are printing, and either find an object/file they would like to print or to design an object using a tool like Tinkercad. Tinkercad is a free web-based 3D modeling program, which makes it useful because no one needs to download software to get started. Once the object is ready the file needs to be saved as an .stl and uploaded to Prusa Slicer. In our library we have a dedicated computer for the 3D printer, which has this installed on it. Essentially Prusa Slicer converts the file into slices which can be printed by the printer. At this stage they can see how long the print will take and then once they are ready export the g-code. This new file then needs to be put on an SD card, which is then inserted into the printer. Then comes the printing!
The printing itself will probably be the longest part of the process, and it is something that should be taken into account when planning projects. One 5-inch tall object took ~7 hours to print, but will vary based on size, complexity, and probably by printer. Once the object is printed it could be considered completely, but there is also the option to smooth the object out via sanding or the application of epoxies as well as painting the final print.
I think this could be a useful tool in any course that studies material culture, like history, art history or archaeology. This would be especially suited for objects that would’ve been held, like coins or tools, as it would allow students to get a feel for the object. (Although the 3D printed object would most certainly be lighter than the original due to the material and how it prints objects with a lattice inside rather than as solid objects.) It also would augment studies of 3D objects where otherwise students would only have access to photographs of the object from set views. With the 3D object they would be able to study the object from more angles, but if students had access to the 3D scan or file of the object they wouldn’t need to necessarily print the object to be able to do that. They could just interact with the digital file.
Those uses mostly focus on cases where students would use a provided file, rather than constructing a 3D object themselves. That itself could be useful to help students do close readings of visual resources in order to recreate them in a 3D environment, but I imagine unless they are in a 3D design class it may not be as feasible for students to have the sort of time, resources, or skills to be able to do that.
LIMITATIONS AND AFFORDANCES
In this process I encountered a few complications. Some of the museum files I was considering were only provided as .obj, whereas we needed them to be an .stl. I tried to use Tinkercad to convert them to .stls, but the files were too large for Tinkercad to open, which is a trade off for using a web-based application. So I needed to find an alternative software to use, and I liked Blender best. Blender is also free but a desktop application, so students would have to download it to be able to use it. We are considering adding it to the computer stationed at the 3D printer in case students need to convert their files.
The amount of time you have available to print is something that cannot be ignored. We found there is a huge difference in the fidelity and detail possible between a short print (30 min) and a long one (7 hours) which you can see above. We imagine most students would be doing prints somewhere between these two, but to make an object with a high enough level of detail for meaningful study will take a lot of time. We don’t want the 3D printer to run unsupervised, so we will not be allowing students to run overnight prints or to print when the printer cannot be staffed by one of us, and this will limit the size of prints we are able to approve. One can “cut” the files into smaller pieces in Prusa Slicer, so if students really wanted to print large items we could run them in multiple segments, which could be glued together.
There are many other models of 3D printers out there, so it is not worth listing them all here. So if this Prusa printer won’t work for you, there very well could be one that is a better fit for your needs.
As already mentioned, Blender is a great alternative to Tinkercad if you need a more powerful 3D modeler.
RELATED READINGS AND RESOURCES
There are a few resources that can help you think about 3D printing as a scholarly activity. First, as part of my Digital Humanities LibGuide I compiled a list of museums and cultural heritage organizations that have published 3D files/scans of their collections. There are also many 3D scanning apps that could be used to create 3D files to print. Perhaps a future review will look at one or two of these as an additional way to design 3D printed objects. I also found the following readings and sample assignments useful in my thinking of how to integrate 3D printing into the classroom:
- Butler, Karl, and Alistair Kwan. “3D-Printed Facsimiles as Classroom Primary Sources: A Comparative Review.” Agora 53, no. 3 (2018): 4–15.
- Johnston, Christine L., Alan Wheeler, Alexis Nuun, and Escobar. “Visualizing and Materializing Objects: 3D Printed Coins Assignment.” Visualizing Objects, Places, and Spaces: A Digital Project Handbook, June 14, 2022. https://doi.org/10.21428/51bee781.6e766336.
- Malazita, James, and Dean Nieusma. “White Paper: 3D Printing as Humanities Inquiry,” December 31, 2017. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.34063.23203.
- Maloy, Robert, Torrey Trust, Susan Kommers, Allison Malinowski, and Irene LaRoche. “3D Modeling and Printing in History/Social Studies Classrooms: Initial Lessons and Insights.” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, no. 2 (2017). https://citejournal.org/volume-17/issue-2-17/social-studies/3d-modeling-and-printing-in-historysocial-studies-classrooms-initial-lessons-and-insights.
- Ancient World in 3D: Authentic Active History Learning. “Teaching.” Accessed August 25, 2022. https://wp.wwu.edu/ancientworldin3d/teaching/.