For many students in STEM, 3D printing can be perceived as being limited to engineering purposes only. This couldn’t be further from the truth! The beauty of additive manufacturing is that its applications are nearly infinite. One compelling and vital way 3D printing is pushing innovation is in wildlife conservation and animal welfare. Animals that before would have suffered or even died are given new life through 3D-printed prosthetics. Habitats that are degrading and vanishing are given a chance for survival with 3D-printed assistance. Conservationists and scientists are using 3D printing to help animals thrive, not just survive.
If you have students interested in a career involving wildlife, this is just one example of how they can combine their classroom knowledge with their passion for animals!
Advances in Animal Prosthetics
The advances in 3D printing technology have aided conservationists by creating substitutes for the parts missing in nature. When an animal is injured or sick in the wild, there’s not much chance for survival. Some of these injuries occur naturally, but most have increased in many species due to habitat loss, animal poaching, and mistreatment from humans. Many animal species are making a comeback thanks to 3D printed prostheses. A tortoise who has lost its shell due to fire, disease, or being hit by a car is given a new protective shell by scanning a healthy tortoise’s shell of the same size and species and fitting it precisely to the injured tortoise. Birds who have lost beaks from hunters are affixed with 3D-printed imitations and are able to live many more years in the wild. Alligators have been given new tails, and ducks have been given new beaks – and none of this would be possible without the precision, accuracy, and flexibility of 3D prints. A toucan, having lost its upper mandible, was given a new one that even matched its original coloring, as an off-color beak would’ve caused the toucan to be shunned in the wild. And, of course, many cats and dogs are fitted with 3D printed limbs or mobility aids and are able to still have full lives.
Preserving Threatened Habitats
Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of pollution, human destruction, and climate change, many delicate ecosystems around the world are in peril. Conservationists have embraced 3D printing as a way to try and support these delicate habitats and give them a chance at survival. Our pollinator populations, especially bees, have been suffering with the loss of habitat and are struggling to find enough nectar to survive. Synthetic flowers, holding a combo of both nectar and pollen, are utilized, as well as a 3D printed honeycomb to provide the bees with a safe home. In another use case, coral reefs are filled with 3D printed coral in an effort to attract live coral polyps and stimulate new growth. The 3D printers are able to use natural materials such as sandstone and limestone, making the prints ocean safe and able to last. The advances in 3D printing technology have made these options feasible for many conservation groups, and the future will certainly hold more applications for 3D printing in animal conservation and welfare.
Designs for some 3D printed prostheses are available for free and are an excellent option for animal shelters or low-income pet owners. These designs are able to be printed at a maker lab in your local library or university for only the cost of the filament. For your students, this can be a wonderful way to teach about 3D printing through the challenge of creating a prosthetic while also instilling a sense of gratification and responsibility to give back. There is nothing better than seeing an injured animal able to eat, walk, and move freely again.
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