3D printing has been called the way of the future, and the dawn of a new era in manufacturing – but what about a time capsule of the present? Thanks to an unlikely incident with a common house fly, the Internet is now exploding with conjectures about the possibilities of 3D printing as a 21st century fossilization technique.
Eifion Jewell, a senior lecturer in Engineering from Wales’ Swansea University, was going about his usual business last week 3D printing a plastic honeycomb structure, when he noticed a strange anomaly. A fly was trapped inside the print, and inadvertently preserved.
“[The fly] settled in there during the print,” Jewell explained in an email. “Don’t know what attracted him or why he decided to take a break when he did, but it led to his undoing.”
The result is what some are calling a 21st century fossil – one that’s uncannily reminiscent of the fossilized amber in Jurassic Park, complete with preserved fly. But where the fictional scientists of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster used the ancient fossil to extract dinosaur DNA, scientists of the future could interpret Jewell’s 3D printed fossil as a relic of the Anthropocene, and a glimpse into the additive manufacturing technology of the early 21st century.
While that may sound like a stretch, it’s not theoretically impossible: plastic polymers and resins are generally non-biodegradable. If Jewell’s honeycomb structure ends up in a landfill somewhere, there’s no telling who could uncover it far into the future, and what they might deduce from our strange era.
In fact, a growing number of researchers are interested in 3D printing precisely for its potential in preservation and conservation. Cornell Professor Drew Harvell is currently working to perfect the 3D scanning and printing of a series of famous sculptures by historic glass blowers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. As easily-damaged objects confined to museums, the Blaschka pieces can benefit from Harvell’s cutting edge project, which produces breath-taking replicas of these priceless glass works.
Meanwhile, an Italian preservation society is hard at work preserving and recreating the facades of the famous Castello di San Martino dall’Argine building. After modeling the missing elements from the side chapels of the Mantova church, the group has been able to effectively 3D print them in polymer, and installing them directly onto the church.
The success of these initiatives means that wider audiences will be able to enjoy these precious artefacts for generations to come.
As Jewell discovered with his unexpected insect preservation, however, there are other lessons to be learned as well: as for the fly, wrote Jewell, “there’s a moral there somewhere about sleeping on the job.”