3D printing has become accessible to anyone as the cost of creating 3D prints has dropped significantly. And for those not wishing to own or operate a 3D printer themselves several commercial 3D printing service providers have entered the market. Although there definitely have been numerous applications of 3D printing within science a 3D printed dataset still appears to be somewhat of an exotic phenomenon in a scientific context. In general, the major applications of 3D printing appear to be in manufacturing, prototyping, art and design. Hence, applying it to scientific visualization is a bit of a niche. But it therefore is an interesting topic in itself, as one encounters different limitations and challenges.

Color differences between 3D model and print Instructional model of a biological cell Detail

We studied the possibilities and usefulness of using 3D printing for visualization of scientific models together with a number of Dutch research groups in the 3DATAPRINT project (an activity within the SURF Open Innovation Lab). A set of different use cases, from varying scientific domains, was used to produce 3D prints:

  • Turbulent structures - University of Twente
  • Synthetic cell model - University of Groningen
  • Oncological surgery support - Netherlands Cancer Institute
  • Flow properties around aneurysms - University of Amsterdam

The results were deemed a success, with more detail in the 3D prints possible than expected, while providing alternative interpretation and communication options compared to on-screen 2D/3D visualizations. For example, in providing more natural interaction with the 3D model and easier communication by physically pointing out elements of interest, or just handing over a 3D print. For the cases involving complex 3D surfaces the advantages appeared to be in a better sense and understanding of spatial structures compared to on- screen 3D visualization and more natural interaction.

Same 3D model, different materials and printing techniques

Unforeseen effects that were observed were that a high amount of detail in a 3D print can look impressive (more so than seeing the same data on a screen) and inspired reactions when confronting people with 3D printed versions of data they were familiar with. In cases where the size of 3D models being visualized approaches the limits of graphical hardware used for interactive visualization a 3D print can be comparatively “low-end” alternative, as no hardware is needed to view a 3D print, the view is always naturally stereoscopic, etc.

A large 3D print in multiple parts (keyboard for scale)

Although 3D printing has been commercially available for some time now and prices are no longer prohibitive for small- to medium-sized scientific models, sev- eral challenges for regular application to scientific visualization remain, depending on the actual use case and goal of a 3D print. The limitations mostly have to do with the amount of detail than can be printed related to physical size, limitations in using color and the effort needed to turn a 3D dataset into a printable 3D model. The latter involves design and creative aspects that in most cases involves manual effort which is hard to automate and requires some experience and skill. 3D printing for visualization will most likely not be applied as commonly as on-screen visualization and will stay a fairly unique way of visualizing, compared to current on-screen visualization techniques that are flexible and ubiquitous. It should therefore not be viewed as an alternative to on-screen visualization, but as an addition to it that triggers different senses, speaks more to intuition and so provides different opportunities.

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