The perfect marriage of CT scanning and 3D printing

3D printing is steadily becoming more available to amateur users, with units becoming available in schools and public libraries across the country. At the same time, industrial CT scanners are becoming more accessible and cost effective for researchers. With a good CT scan, a paleontologist can observe detailed anatomy, such a bone matrix, or otherwise hidden anatomy, such as developing teeth. Taken together, these two technologies make a powerful team.

Our lab got a Makerbot Replicator 2 in 2013. Its inaugural project was to print a Hadrocodium skull for the documentary, “Your Inner Fish”. Following that, the Replicator was frequently used to print models generated from CT scans. These included models that were magnified replicas of the fossil, anatomical components digitally dissected out from the scan, or reconstructions of bones that were broken or warped in the specimen. These models were useful for observing details on small and delicate bones, demonstrating anatomy to students, and testing possible articulation.

In 2014 our department got an industrial CT scanner, perfect for scanning small to medium sized fossils and bones. Surprisingly, there are very few resources available addressing the problem of mounting specimens. The scanner itself is equipped with a lathe chuck, which is not very good for attaching samples directly to. Instead, a range of attachments are needed to accommodate different sized specimens. This is where a 3D printer comes in very handy. Falcon tubes are useful for small samples. More complex clamps could be made in a machine shop. With a 3D printer, custom built platforms/containers/cradles can be produced quickly and cheaply. What follows are some examples of the attachments we have made in all or in part using a 3D printer.


The lineup of the mounting materials. Top shelf- bisected water cooler, middle shelf- foams, bottom shelf- holders. Not shown- variety of tapes, hot glue gun, more foams.


This holder was custom printed to hold multiple small bird skulls.


These U-shaped holders have been printed in a variety of sized to accommodate slab specimens or anything else that will fit in them and are very versatile.


These holders are more generic and use a combination of found materials (a clear plastic cylinder, a falcon tube, and a tupperware container) and 3D printed parts. The hot glue gun is very useful for these.

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