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3-D printing helps restore imperial collections

Jun 2012

The Palace Museum in Beijing – finished in 1420 and home to China’s emperors until 1924 – is undergoing extensive renovation with funding from the Chinese government, and a UK research team is helping the museum with its archives.

Cultural artifacts undergo 3-D scanning as part of a renovation project at The Forbidden City in Beijing. The data acquired can be used either for computer visualization of the object or for printing a physical model of it.

Surrounded by walls and a moat, the complex consists of 980 buildings and covers an area of 720,000 sq m. Once a place of restricted access, earning it the name “The Forbidden City,” the Chinese imperial palace is now open to visitors. It was made a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site in the 1980s and now is under the supervision of the museum.

The museum’s job – to curate and restore the vast imperial collections of the Ming and Qing dynasties – is a formidable one. There are more than 1 million works of art in the permanent collections, including a cultural trove of ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, bronze ware, timepieces, jade, palace paraphernalia, ancient books and historical documents.

To help restore the ancient artifacts, designers at Loughborough University in the UK have been called upon to use cutting-edge 3-D technologies. Their platform could automate some of the labor-intensive manual techniques currently used to measure, photograph and repair the artifacts – which could help speed up the project and save money.

This 3-D model was created from an artifact on display at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

Doctoral student Fangjin Zhang and her colleagues at the Loughborough Design School have been investigating the use of 3-D printing and other digital technologies for sculptural and archaeological restoration.

The noninvasive 3-D printing method allows an object to be built directly from 3-D CADdata. The shape of the original object is captured using laser or optical scanners, and the data is cleaned up using reverse-engineering techniques. Damaged areas can be digitally restored in preparation for the 3-D printing process. The group uses the portable ATOS Compact Scan, a noncontact CCD scanning system from GOM mbH of Braunschweig, Germany.

Objects typically are scanned from several angles, and the data sets are combined into a single point cloud, which is a set of points in X-Y-Z space, Zhang said. She added that the data can be converted into various formats to be used for computer visualization of the 3-D object or into an STL (standard tessellation language) file for 3-D prints.

Three-dimensional scanning technology is being used to help restore the enclosure of a pavilion in the Emperor Qianlong Garden at The Forbidden City. Images courtesy of Loughborough University.

The process could allow missing parts of an object to be replicated on the computer and built as physical models to be used as replacements for the parts.

The group has used the technique on Ming and Qing dynasty artifacts such as a wood fan base, a bronze dragon plaque with gold surface, a wood ceiling and marble enclosure, and furniture. “There is real scope for this technique to be used in museums across the world,” said the design school’s Ian Campbell, who supervises the project.

3-D printing3-D scanning3-D technology archaeology3-D technology museum artifacts3-D technology sculptureartifact restorationAsia-PacificATOS Compact ScanCaren B. LesCCDChinaEnglandEuropeFangjin ZhangForbidden CityIan Campbellimagingindustriallaser scannerLoughborough Design SchoolLoughborough UniversityMing Dynastymuseum restorationobject restorationoptical scanneropticsPalace MuseumPicture ThisQing Dynastylasers

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