Unleashing Sea Monsters: The Magic of 3D Printing

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You might have noticed the recent news regarding the unearthing of a gargantuan fossil in the UK in early December 2023. It was actually the skull of a pliosaur, an ancient marine reptile from the Jurassic period, initially spotted on the cliffs of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, a world heritage site home to Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous cliffs, by an amateur fossil enthusiast, Phil Jacobs. This exciting revelation was covered in the show “Attenborough and the Giant Sea Monster” which was broadcasted on BCC on the first day of the New Year, and starred renowned naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, delving into this fossil. Interestingly, 3D printing technology was integral to the understanding and visualization of this colossal sea creature.

In order to comprehend the role of 3D printing in this event, it is crucial to first understand the significance of the discovery. The two-meter long skull, endowed with 130 teeth, is one of the biggest and most complete specimens of this kind. If the snout had not serendipitously fallen onto the beach, this remarkable discovery may never have been made. The Pliosauroidea, or more commonly referred to as pliosaurs and known as the ‘Tyrannosaurus rex of the seas’, were apex predators during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Given their gigantic proportions, there is much mystery surrounding these creatures, particularly regarding their movement capabilities, thus, the appellation of sea monster.

Making the Giant 3D Printed Sea Monster

Pliosaurs boasted a formidable bite, generating an astounding 33,000 newtons of force. The living animal with the strongest bite today, the saltwater crocodile, only generates a mere 16,000 newtons. Humans, to add further perspective, can only generate a paltry 700 newtons by comparison. Unsurprisingly, Pliosaurs also boasted rapid movement, powered by four robust flippers. This feature has confounded scientists; it was unclear how these flippers could propel such a gargantuan creature through the water. That is until Dr. Luke Muscutt and James Hogg stepped into the scene.

Dr. Luke Muscutt, currently employed as a laboratory technician at Imperial College London, has dedicated much of his research to increasing our understanding of plesiosaurs (the family from which plisaurs originate). His work in 2017 was instrumental in resolving long-standing debates about how these creatures utilized their flippers. “We found that plesiosaurs used a tandem flipper propulsion system, meaning the four flippers work together to push them through water. This system is unique because all other animals with flippers, like penguins and turtles, only use the front two for propulsion, and the back flippers or feet for steering. We studied this by building a tandem flapping flipper system mounted on a gantry, without a head or tail.” Muscutt explained.

Despite his extensive work on the topic, Muscutt’s research was brought to a standstill when he aimed to create a fully-formed robot. This eventually changed after he met James Hogg, who had just opened the Yorkshire Natural History Museum in Sheffield and agreed to support Muscutt’s work. The cutting-edge, free-swimming robot replica had its body plates (otherwise known as the ‘skin’) constructed via a metal 3D printer housed at the Yorkshire Natural History Museum. Explaining why the team pursued additive manufacturing, Muscutt stated, “The joy of 3D printing is that the majority of the work lies in the computer-aided design. Once it’s perfect on the computer, you just print it, with no messing around later – other than the assembly and a bit of sanding and painting.”

The final robot was able to swim at Imperial’s state-of-the-art wave tank and was shown not just to Sir David but to millions in the broadcast. This provided a clearer understanding to the viewers on how this so-called sea monster would have actually moved in real life, bring the past into the future thanks to 3D printing. It doesn’t stop there! Dr. Muscott plans to redesign the pliosaur, affectionately named Flip, to make even more realistic flipper motions and hopefully figure out the creature’s speed as well as how its head and neck are involved in steering.

To do this, 3D printing will be utilized to help replicate the delicate internal bone structures of plesiosaur flippers, simulating the flippers’ flexibility more accurately. Further assisting this will be a change in printer. Dr. Muscutt has now received sponsorship from FormLabs through Creat3D which means the next versions will likely be made of TPU or another flexible polymer for even more precision. Learn more about the project as well as the making of the documentary on Imperial College London’s website HERE.

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