Smaller 3D printed bone replicas collected from a printer. (Camosun College)

Smaller 3D printed bone replicas collected from a printer. (Camosun College)

Victoria college teams with Salt Spring firm to 3-D print massive whale bones

Process shaves days of labour off hand-sculpting method of creating model bones

A marriage of convenience between Cetacea Contracting Ltd. and Camosun College has meant a faster manufacture of mammal-bone replicas than was capable for the family-run business in its two decades.

Cetacea is a Salt Spring Island-based business specializing in building and replicating mammal skeletons, from seals to whales, modern to prehistoric. Since seeking out Camosun’s facilities, the company has been able to 3-D scan and print bones as long as 14 feet to fill orders for institutions around the world.

Traditionally, bones missing from a skeletal model are either replaced by an identical donor if possible, or sculpted by hand before being moulded and cast for display.

“That is incredibly skilled work. To get something that looks even close to realistically resembling the missing bone … it’s very hard to do,” said Cetacea president Mike deRoos. “It could be multiple days of labour per bone that we’re saving.”

Instead, Camosun’s 3-D printing labs scan real bones, scale or flip them as needed and print using ABS plastic (the same used for Lego).

“With the technology that is available these days and the expertise that Camosun has, the 3-D scanning, printing and replication process (is) feasible and affordable for our partners,” said Matt Zeleny, Camosun Innovates applied research specialist.

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Resulting from their partnership, Cetacea and Camosun plan to supply historic blue whale and humpback whale skeletons for two Australian institutions, the Western Australia Museum and Quandamooka Yoolooburrabee Aboriginal Corporation. Another project has the Greater Victoria team working with the University of Alaska to replace missing bones of the Museum of the North’s bowhead whale.

DeRoos said their Camosun partnership has been beneficial beyond 3-D printing. The contractors have had nearly all of their larger skeletons scanned by the college. As a result, they were then able to virtually assemble the creatures and plan their installation in museum spaces, which is “hugely helpful working with projects overseas,” deRoos said.

In the last 15 years, deRoos said Cetacea has assembled approximately 20 whale skeletons. Utilizing the efficiency of Camosun’s technology, “I’d love it if we could do another 20,” he said. But it’s a “really small, fickle market.” The assembly projects, which traditionally take about a year, require museum funding which typically comes from government.

RELATED STORY: Spotted a whale? Here’s what to do

“So when the economy’s doing well, governments give museums a bit more to spend. The last five or seven years have been pretty busy for us,” deRoos said. “We have about three skeletons in the queue right now. Beyond that, it’s really hard to say where the next one might come from.”


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Completed 3D printed bone replicas. (Camosun College)

Completed 3D printed bone replicas. (Camosun College)

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