Applications for 3D scanning and printing


3D scan of a Keel-Billed Toucan

3D scan of a Keel-Billed Toucan

A major part of this project involves collecting data on avian bill morphology by using 3D scanners to create models which we can then analyse at a later date.  Being able to carry out this work in a museum setting such as the Natural History Museum in Tring and Manchester University has many advantages, most of which we will discuss in an upcoming blog about working with Museum collections.

We are able to collect data on pretty much every single extant bird species on the planet using these collections without needing to study specimens in the wild, and we can do it all in one place. Obviously this data has many uses when it comes to our own research, and will hopefully be used by many other future projects as the data will be open source – but our research has also got us thinking about other uses for 3D scanning technology.

We didn’t have to go far to find our first examples of how 3D models can be used in order to help birds.  The most recent case we’ve seen was that of a Toucan called Tieta whose beak was damaged whilst she was being illegally trafficked in Brazil. When she was taken in by the authorities most of her upper bill was missing, but thanks to 3D printing she has had a replacement bill fitted enabling her to go back to using regular feeding techniques.  You can read more about Tieta and watch a video of her here.  This will come as good news to another Toucan that is still waiting for their new 3D printed beak to be fitted, and to Tieta’s male companion.

Another bird that has been helped out by a 3D printed beak part is Beauty the Bald Eagle.  Beauty’s beak got mutilated when she was shot in the face by a hunter. X-rays were taken to make a model of what Beauty’s beak should look like. This model was then printed and as you can see from the video below, adjusted so that it would fit onto the remaining part of her upper bill.  Only time will tell if this can become a permanent solution after other prototypes are tested.  Maybe one day the data collected from this project can be used to help create better solutions for designing beak prosthetics. Watch this space…

It is not just bird beaks that have been printed off to improve the lives of birds and allow them to function more normally.  This heart warming story about buttercup the duck getting a new printed foot after she was born with a backwards left foot shows just how multi-functional 3D printing solutions can be.

One of the best stories we have come across so far is that of Derby the dog who was born with deformed front legs.  The 3DSystems printed off some prosthetics for him and he is now able to run around and play fetch to his hearts content.  You can see the full story on Derby here – it’s bound to bring a smile to your face.

That’s probably enough stories about how 3D printing has helped animals (unless you want to read about how a cat had a new knee joint printed that is).  It also has extensive uses in human medical applications. These can vary from the extremes of printing a replacement skull for a baby after it grew to 4 times its original size, to printing replacement hip joints.  In a case where a newborn baby was struggling to breathe due to issues with collapsed bronchus, scientists at the University of Michigan were able to get a lung stint printed that has enabled the baby to breathe freely for the first time.

3D Printer

3D Printer

As a zoologist I should probably be getting more excited about the applications of 3D printing animal prosthetics and the like but I find myself rather intrigued about the prospect of having a 3D food printer at home for use at my whimsy.  I imagine many of you would be happy to receive a 3D chocolate printing machine this coming Christmas and if this article is to be believed then you might just be in luck.

A huge area for future development in 3D printing has got to be the construction industry. Construction projects using 3D printers could potentially reduce waste and construction times. For example, a team in China claims to have 3D printed 10 houses in 24 hours, which is certainly a lot quicker than current building projects take where I live.  Envisage what Gaudi could have achieved with a 3D printer, the Sagrada Familia might have been built a tad quicker.  It could also cut back on labour costs and health and safety risks.  The automotive industry is also taking advantage of 3D printing with projects such as those reducing the weight of car parts like this one.

Thus far I have only covered what I would term the ‘positive side’ of 3D printing but this technology has not been without its controversies, with plans to print a 3D gun being made available online (this is a link to the BBC, not the blueprints, in case you were wondering).  These guns can be undetectable by x-ray scanners and weapon detectors and can provide a loophole around gun control legislation.  There will also always be ethical issues and friction when we are talking about printing things like human organs, a debate that I will steer clear of.  In recent times there have been major moves to move away from our over-reliance on plastics, something which the cheaper and more readily available printers rely upon. Perhaps future developments will concentrate on the usage of recycled plastics and reduce our overall plastic usage.  There is also the impact on jobs to take into consideration.  Whatever your thoughts I imagine the debates will rumble on for quite some time.

The applications of 3D printing seem to be endless. How long will it be before the technology is good enough for you to be able to print your Amazon orders off in your own home (who needs AmazonPrime when you can have AmazonInstant)? If this were to happen maybe the possibility of drones hovering around our heads with little cardboard packages may never reach fruition… I can but hope.  With what has already been achieved with this technology exciting times lie ahead. Hopefully someone will start up a project soon scanning all of the worlds mammals, fish etc. Imagine having the whole animal kingdom 3D scanned and all opensource. Get to it science.

3D printers still seem to be reserved for the more technologically minded, and they are still a tad out of my price range, but in the years to come they will be entering into more of our homes and playing a greater role in our lives. Exciting times ahead.


3D Printer World. 2013. BEAUTY THE BALD EAGLE GETS A NEW 3D PRINTED BEAK. Online. 03/09/2015. Available from:

BBC News. 2015. Mutilated toucan gets 3D-printed beak prosthesis. Online. 03/09/2015. Available from:

Michigan Engineering – University of Michigan. 2013. 3D printed splint saves the life of a baby. Online. 03/09/2015. Available from:

Images and Videos

Keith Bubach. 2013. BEAUTY THE BALD EAGLE GETS A NEW 3D PRINTED BEAK. Online. 03/09/2015. Available from:

3D Printer by Kadel3003 is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.