What do you do when you're the world's largest museum but can display only two percent of the 137 million items in your collection (a mere 2.75 million) at any given time? In an effort to get more of their treasures into the public eye, specialists at the Smithsonian Institution's 19 collective museums and galleries hit upon the solution of digitizing their collection and 3D printing key models and displays suitable for traveling exhibitions. It's a tall order, but one that's sure to give the rapidly blooming business of additive manufacturing a huge boost.

In the past, whenever curators wanted to duplicate an object, they turned to traditional rubber molds and plaster casts. Now, with the Smithsonian's budding digitization initiative coming up to speed, teams can deploy expensive minimally-invasive laser scanners to generate virtual models of items in the collection with micron-level accuracy. Large additive manufacturing companies, such as RedEye on Demand, can then take those files and generate actual physical replicas suitable for display or loan to other museums, or even schools. The savings on insurance premiums alone could go a long way toward defraying the cost of the massive scanning project.

The program's two co-coordinators, Adam Metallo and Vincent Rossi, both with fine art backgrounds, began at the museum as model makers. Eventually they managed to secure a grant for a 3D scanner which they knew could generate far better models when teamed with a quality 3D printer. A recent effort resulted in what the Smithsonian calls the "largest 3D printed museum quality historical replica" in the world - a statue of Thomas Jefferson identical to the one on display at Jefferson's home, Monticello.

"Our mission," Rossi told SPAR, "is to digitize these huge collections in 3D - everything from insects to aircraft. Our day-to-day job is essentially trying to figure out how to actually accomplish that." They'll certainly have their hands full - the museums' collections literally fill acres of storage space in several facilities scattered around the region.

Unfortunately, funding for the project is still scarce, so Metallo and Rossi split their time between digitizing artifacts with laser or CT scanners (or open-source cloud-based digitization software and standard digital cameras) and touting their services to the museum's many researchers, curators and conservators, as well as potential corporate sponsors, hoping to drum up support.

"The one resource we have plenty of is amazing content," Rossi mused, "and along with that comes frustrating problems for us, but they're potentially interesting problems for the industry. How do we take 3D digitization and take it to the Smithsonian scale? We're at the ground floor of trying to understand that."

Indeed, one major issue with archival scans is how to store the digital files so that they'll be accessible decades into the future, when formats will surely have changed. With millions upon millions of items yet to be scanned, it appears we'll just have to wait to see how things shape up on that front.

Rossi and Metallo will report on their Smithsonian work at SPAR International 2012, April 15-18, in Houston.

Source: SPAR Point Group via CNET