MAKING THINGS GEOLOGICAL: 3D PRINTING FOR GEOSCIENCE LEARNING AND RESEARCH
3D printing is inclusive. Some people don’t "get" 3D data on a computer screen, even using 3D glasses or viewing in 3D visualization rooms. By printing out 3D datasets, we can interact with them in a more intuitive, more human way. Small geological things, like microfossils or pore networks, can be digitized, scaled up and printed out at sizes that might aid comprehension by the student or expert.
3D printing makes data touchable. Teaching topography is more intuitive if local data can be printed and handled. With the ability to print in multiple colors, geological data (like map units or geophysical data) can be printed on top of elevation data as a way to better understand a new field area or quality-check field results. Models made from seismic data, reservoir models, computed tomography (CT), or other 3D data can be printed with any orientation or cross-section.
3D printing allows experimentation with unique specimens. The one geoscience field where this technology has gained significant traction has been with paleontologists. Among their many uses, they can digitally remove specimens from stubborn matrices using CT and print the specimens out. Porous reservoir rocks can also be "photocopied" using CT and 3D printing to allow for fluid flow experiments.
3D printing is cheap. Desktop 3D printers are under $3000 and printing material is commodity priced (unlike 2D printer ink/toner!). Mineral or fossil models could be printed on demand from digital libraries of type specimens, saving institutions the cost of acquisition while bringing unique specimens to broader audiences.
3D printing is multidisciplinary and marketable. With fields as diverse as art, architecture, engineering, and medicine taking advantage of 3D printing, the fields for cross-cutting collaborations are fertile. When students learn how to operate 3D printers and the associated GIS and CAD software, they gain skills marketable to a wide variety of employers.