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Thomas Jefferson: The Smithsonian's 3D printing pioneer

A new effort at the Smithsonian will create digital 3D models and physical 3D printed of many of the objects in its archives, a step that could help researchers and educators alike.

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Thomas Jefferson in bronze face

As part of an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History called "Slavery at Jefferson?s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty," curators needed a great statue of Thomas Jefferson, but the one they would most like to have had was on permanent display at Monticello in Virginia. Rather than using traditional methods--with rubber molding and casting--a team at the Smithsonian decided to pursue a museum-quality 3D printed replica.

The result? What the Smithsonian says is the "largest 3D printed museum quality historical replica" on Earth. And now, it's also the showpiece that begins a much larger effort at the world's biggest museum and research institution: a move to create digital 3D models and physical 3D prints of a wide variety of the objects in its archive.

This could have a profound effect if the effort is successful over time. Visitors to the Smithsonian's many arms see just 2 percent of its giant collection, and widespread digitization could mean that the archives are opened up--virtually, at least--to people throughout the country and the world. And that could be a boon to both researchers and educators, as well as students everywhere.

Plus, the museum itself is likely to be able to display a growing number of sophisticated 3D printed models and replicas, with Jefferson being just the first example.

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Jefferson's legs

In order to create the 3D model of Thomas Jefferson, RedEye on Demand used a 3D printer capable of both museum quality finish and museum-scale size. These are Jefferson's legs.

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Jefferson in parts

Making the Jefferson replica statue required 3D laser scans of the existing statue at Monticello. The data that was generated was sent as a digital model to RedEye on Demand, which 3D-printed the new statue in four parts.

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Upper body

The replica statue was made from production-grade thermoplastics, meaning that the final product should be strong and durable. RedEye on Demand used what it calls a "sparse-fill technique" for the statue's interior. That's a process that's similar to honeycomb and means that the statue is light and relatively inexpensive, yet high quality and strong.

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Leg

One of the 3D printed Thomas Jefferson replica statue's legs, which will be part of the final exhibit at the National Museum of African-American History.

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Unpainted

The four parts of the 3D printed statue are seen here unpainted.

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Rear view

Here, we see the statue in an unfinished state, with some of the paint having already been applied.

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Bronze

By now, the statue has been painted with the bronze color that visitors to the exhibit will see--and which mimic the actual statue at Monticello.

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Close-up

It's hard to tell in a close-up that this is a 3D printed model and not an actual bronze statue.

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Replica on display

Here, we see the final product on display at the National Museum of African-American History.

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