3D Printing Accessible Educational Materials

Scott Hamilton is a professor of archaeology at Lakehead University, a small university in northern Ontario. He also runs a small consulting operation (Hamilton Archaeological Consulting), and has recently incorporated 3D printing into his repertoire.

Focusing on Community

Although Hamilton works at the university, a large part of his research (both academic and consulting) involves community-based work. “I frequently work with aboriginal communities to identify what their research priorities are and figure out how to address those priorities,” he shares.

“A big priority is protecting their land-based interests,” explains Hamilton, “Especially as the Supreme Court of Canada has clarified the operational meaning of aboriginal treaty rights. However, First Nations also interested in sustainable resource development, regional and economic development, and articulating to youth what it means to be aboriginal—communicating their heritage and relationship to the land.”

Communities have had Hamilton work with their knowledge holders to figure out how to teach young people about traditional culture (and what their aboriginal heritage means) in new ways. “That’s really where I see 3D printing coming in handy,” he shares.

3D Printing Accessible Educational Materials

“Many communities I work with are remote (fly-in, with no roads), which means taking students on trips to see museums is frequently impossible,” Hamilton explains. “We face the questions ‘how do you provide heritage education in these kinds of circumstances? How do we provide interactive education that will truly engage adolescent students in archaeology, without the use of broadband internet?’ And it seems like 3D printing is a great answer.”

Hamilton has decided to test that answer using the Afinia H800 3D printer. “My aim is to scan and recreate stone, bone, wood and antler tools that are durable enough to be used as educational materials in schools or as travelling exhibit materials,” he says. “The prints solve an enormous problem, since they’re easily re-printable if something breaks.”

The price point of the printer and materials is also a benefit when it comes to creating these models. “Small regional universities don’t have much money, and communities don’t have a lot of cash,” shares Hamilton. “So this might be a very effective way of bringing educational materials that otherwise would be completely inaccessible to rural communities.”

A Work in Progress

Comparison of 3D printed artifacts to original
A comparison between the original artifact from the Brohm Site, a ca. 9000 year-old occupation along Glacial Lake Minong, and 3D-printed models: Original (A), raw 3D print (D), two versions of the painted 3D print (B & C). Click to enlarge.

Hamilton is well on his way to introducing these valuable educational materials to schools. “We’ve already printed a number of stone artifacts. Some of objects are about 9,000-years-old, and we are working toward getting the 3D prints as accurate and realistic as possible. For example, we’ve experimented with different filament types and colors and found that details are much more visible with black filament rather than the natural white that comes with the printer.”

With all of the different experiments Hamilton has done to increase the accuracy of the models, he admits it has taken them awhile to get to where they are currently. “We are just perfectionist nerds,” he laughs. “But overall, we’ve had great success.”

Hamilton readily attributes part of the success they’ve had to one of his graduate students. “She has wonderful artistic ability and is using acrylic paints on the 3D prints to replicate the color and spackling from original artifacts. When you look at the originals and compare them to the painted models, unless you touch them and really know what differences to look for, they are incredibly similar. In an exhibit, you wouldn’t notice the difference, so I’d say we are getting pretty darn close to museum quality, if we aren’t already there.”

It won’t be much longer until Hamilton gets his answer on what museums think of the quality. “I’ve sent off some models with graduate students headed to Winnipeg, where a colleague curator will take a look at them and give us some feedback about whether they are museum-grade. I think he’s going to be fairly happy with them. If the quality is good enough, commissioning for museums may be another opportunity for us.”

Why the Afinia H800?

3D printed artifact comparison
Comparison between a second Brohm Site artifact: Original artifact (A), the model from the affordable H800 (B), and model printed on a high-end, expensive 3D printer (C). Click to enlarge.

“The university I work for has a high-end 3D printer, but the prints aren’t durable,” Hamilton explains. “Since we aim to create materials that will be traveling and handled by students, they need to be strong. I was attracted to the H800 because it’s affordable, has manageable print costs, and had received great reviews.”

Another draw was the H800’s ease of use. “I wanted to see if a late-middle-age academic could learn 3D printing without screwing it up!” he laughs. “My tech and I spent maybe an hour and a half getting it set up, leveled, calibrated, etc. It was operational quite quickly.”

Hamilton says that he’d love to see the university with an Afinia H800, and actually bought the 3D printer himself to get started on a proof of concept. “Universities can be very conservative about how they spend money,” he explains, “so I am demonstrating how the H800 would be a great use of the budget. I’m very pleased with how my ‘experiment’ is going. The quality of prints is phenomenal, and the consumption of materials per print costs just pennies.”