Printing Gone Real

3D printing hits Houston in the head: New mainstream technology is a history changer

3D printing hits Houston in the head: New technology changes history

Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
HCC has brought history to life, thanks to the new frontier of 3D printing.   Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
Costing upwards of $40,000 only a decade ago, today's 3D printers are available in desktop models starting at $2,200. Courtesy of Houston Community College
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
HCC hopes to bring the technology out of the engineering labs into more academic settings. Courtesy of Houston Community College
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
Lincoln in 1860 and 1865 Courtesy of Smithsonian Institute
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask
Abraham Lincoln 3D Printing face mask

Long the domain of engineers and manufacturers, 3D printing has gone mainstream in recent years, sparking a bold frontier for artists and designers alongside a host of concerns about everything from copyright issues to basement gun makers.

With help from Smithsonian Institute's recently-launched X 3D initiative, Houston Community College is pushing the technology in yet another direction, creating hands-on educational tools virtually unimaginable a decade ago.

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, HCC students have "printed" a facial plaster cast made for Abraham Lincoln just months before that fateful night at Ford's Theater.

Created in molded plastic with a MarkerBot Replicator 2 — one of 3D printing's most affordable devices at only $2,200 — the replica brings every detail of the Great Emancipator's iconic mug to life, beard and all. Total cost in materials? Roughly $12 . . . and getting lower each year.

"When you hold an object like this in your hands, you get an entirely new perspective on the history around it." 

"Students now have the ability to touch the features of Lincoln's face and see how the demands of presidency changed him," says Doug Rowlett, HCC's interim educational technology director. For a point of comparison, the Smithsonian offers 3D blueprints of another Lincoln facial cast made during the 1860 presidential campaign.

"When you hold an object like this in your hands, you get an entirely new perspective on the history around it."

Rowlett — an English professor for HCC's Southwest College — notes the countless possibilities 3D printing affords the school's engineering and design students. But with the Smithsonian project, he hopes the technology will work its ways into more academic settings.

For example, art students can explore a rare 16th-century piece of Italian furniture while a biology lab attempts to reassemble the bones of a woolly mammoth and a history class examines Amelia Earhart's flight suit. The Smithsonian will add new artifacts on a regular basis.

"3D printing is going change how we do everything," Rowlett says.

"Right now we're making small trinkets, but in the near future we'll be making practical items. Something you buy at Walmart today soon will be something you can make at home with the push of a button. We want our students to know how to work with the new technology."