The Star Trek replicator is a bit of 23rd century technology that science fiction writers dreamed up as a device that could recreate an object from a digital file. As the theory on the show goes, the replicator would convert pure energy into matter.

Obviously, we are not quite there yet. But in our 21st century, there is an affordable substitute technology: the 3-D printer.

This form of printing got its start in the 1980s with a process called additive manufacturing. This evolved into stereolithography: the layering of photopolymers one over another until a 3-D object is built. Thanks to inkjet printing technologies, economies of scale, material science and 3-D rendering programs, systems for consumer 3-D printing are now priced from hundreds to a few thousand dollars.

The mosquito crouched on Oahu in this avian malaria exhibit was created using a 3D printer.
The mosquito crouched on Oahu in this avian malaria exhibit at the Bishop Museum was created using a 3-D printer. Courtesy: Burt Lum

Walk into any makerspace today and one of its signature pieces of equipment will be a 3-D printer. Applications I’ve encountered include prototyping models for manufacturing, creating objects for cosplay costumes or producing trinkets for sale. But I wanted to find out how an organization like the Bishop Museum would derive value from a 3-D printer, beyond just its novelty.

“The key with 3-D printing is that it has to make business sense and it has to meet the mission of the Museum.” — Brad Evans, Director of Exhibits and Production, Bishop Museum

In the lobby of the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium, a newly installed, NASA themed interactive exhibit features 13 of NASA’s advanced Earth-observing satellites. With any space theme exhibit, one would expect alien landscapes and/or space faring vessels as models or mockups. Of course none of these are provided by NASA, so it is up to the museum exhibit’s staff to innovate.

Brad Evans, the museum’s director of exhibits and production, told me they could have gone to a Philippines-based model maker and bought miniature replicas for about $300 apiece. That would have easily consumed 20% of their entire exhibit budget.

Enter 3-D Printing

Michael Wilson, the exhibit designer at the Bishop Museum and a recent transplant from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, said, “This is a perfect use for 3-D printing. All the object files are available from NASA. They need to be scaled for miniature replicas and each of the parts separately 3-D printed, painted and assembled. But this could be done for a lot less money.”

With the 3-D models in hand, the exhibits team created viewing chambers to give the sensation of observing the satellites from a vantage point in space.

The Bishop Museum used a 3D printer to create this miniature replica of the International Space Station.
The Bishop Museum used a 3-D printer to create this miniature replica of the International Space Station. Burt Lum

In the small makeshift makerspace, in a building tucked away from the beaten path, Wilson shows me his setup. It includes a FlashForge Creator Pro 3-D printer, Matter and Form 3-D scanner, Makerbot software and a PC to run it on. And here is where the sausage is made.

Keep in mind, 3-D printing is not a production system that can mass produce large quantities of items in a short period of time. This is a time consuming, laborious, trial by error process. While we talked in the makerspace, the 3-D printer was busy extruding a miniature replica of a mansion. I noticed that one end of the extrusion was lifting off the base creating an uneven pass over.

“If this was meant for one of our displays, I would have to stop the printer and start all over,” said Wilson.

That end of the extrusion would have become distorted and unusable. Luckily it was just a test run, the point being, finished products never take just one print job to complete. Wilson showed me a display of all the failed print jobs, but pointed out, “these failures are where you learn stuff.”

Making A Game Out Of It 

In the native Hawaiian birds exhibit Lele o Nā Manu, you can find samples of 3-D printed items strategically placed in high traffic areas. One, for example, is the interactive game “Elepaio: Circle of Life.” It’s a simple board game that takes the player through the natural ecosystem to learn about life in the native forest. The game could have been build with just printed material and minimal moving parts.

The Bishop Museum's digital developer, Nicholas Griffith and its exhibit designer, Michael Wilson, show the "Elepaio: Circle of Life" board game.
The Bishop Museum’s digital developer, Nicholas Griffith and its exhibit designer, Michael Wilson, show the “Elepaio: Circle of Life” board game. Burt Lum

Instead, Wilson told me, he wanted people, kids especially, to handle the pieces and “have a personal connection” to the game. Board pieces include small birds, worms, rat enemies, ancient nets and native spiders. Each piece is a highly durable polymer plastic extruded from the 3-D printer. They are cost effective and durable, both key metrics for an interactive exhibit.

Another model that caught my eye was a gigantic mosquito standing atop a replica of Oahu. This mosquito, I was told, was manufactured at Oahu Makerspace, a full service makerspace with 3-D printers, CNC routers, bandsaw, lathes, laser etchers, pipe benders, etc. The size and complexity made it easier to produce the mosquito at Oahu Makerspace than at the Bishop Museum.

Where things go from here is only limited by one’s imagination. The challenge becomes how to bring more of the museum’s collection to the public. With the museum there’s a constant balance between cultural appropriateness, educational intent, time and resources.

“The future of 3-D printing at Bishop Museum is to actively engage our visitors by scanning and printing cultural and natural artifacts, allowing for deeper interactions and participation,” said Wilson.

He seemed very optimistic about the possibilities.

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