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Bringing Hidden Caves to the Surface Through 3D Scanning and 3D Printing

Beneath the streets of Auckland, New Zealand are several geological wonders. The area is full of volcanoes, and under the ground are multiple lava caves, which are caverns that form when molten lava flow drains out from beneath a rapidly cooling surface. Some are open to visitors and explorers, while others are off-limits – but even if you never get the chance to enter an actual lava cave, you can still see inside one and marvel at every detail of its features, thanks to the hard work of Jason Barnett, Chirag Jindal and Peter Crossley.

Some of the lava caves beneath Auckland and its suburbs are more than 40,000 years in age, and many of them are unknown as they’re beneath private property. But digital artist Jindal and speleologist Crossley spent 18 months crawling into the caves beneath the Auckland suburbs, armed with a LiDAR scanner to capture images of the caves that had never been seen before. Each scan took about 10 minutes, but as many as 20 scans were sometimes required to capture a full cave. The scanning itself was the quickest part of the endeavor, though.

“Taking the scanner into the caves took the most time,” Jindal said. “We had to crawl through man holes and go through people’s backyards just to get to where we needed to be, with permission of course.”

A lava cave off a house’s basement

The scans were given to Barnett, who works for 3D printing company Mindkits. Barnett then spent 2,000 hours 3D printing the digital images – or, more specifically, 1,600 hours 3D printing them and 400 post-processing them. Because of the size of the 3D printed caves, he had to split them into 67 pieces, which were printed on six Ultimaker 3D printers operating 24 hours a day. Each print took between 20 and 50 hours to complete. Because he was on a tight deadline, Barnett often had to work at 2 or 3 in the morning.

“I’d have to get up, take the print off and initiate a new print,” he said.


[Image via Stuff.co]

He used 15 kg of PLA to 3D print the caves, which, upon completion, were fused together using a plastic welding process to create the full pieces. It was the hardest project Barnett ever worked on in the seven years that he’s been working with 3D printing, but he is happy with how it turned out, he said.


“I am incredibly proud of what I produced because it was so difficult and it has a really interesting textural aesthetic to it,” Barnett said. “It gives you this really interesting visual representation where you understand the forms of how these caves are built up over time.”

The 3D printed caves will be on display at an exhibition called “Into the Underworld,” which is running until December 24th at Auckland’s Silo Park. They’ve been attached to strings and hung from the ceiling, so that visitors can peer into them and see the detailed features of the caves they’ll likely never get to see otherwise. Many people are unaware of the extent of the lava caves lying beneath Auckland and its suburbs, so this exhibition will bring them into the light for the first time.

“It was a pretty grand-scale project,” Barnett said. “No-one has ever 3D printed cave structures like this before in New Zealand. This would definitely be one of the largest 3D prints in New Zealand ever done.”

The country is becoming more involved in 3D printing, with some large-scale print jobs emerging lately.

[Sources: Stuff.coMindkits / Images: Chirag Jindal unless otherwise noted]


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