Design and fabrication: a forensic story

- Ottawa, Ontario

3D scan of 4 skulls ready for printing

3D scan of 4 skulls ready for printing.

Parameters: The RCMP needed help to produce exact replicas in 3D of 15 skulls from unidentified male remains, found between 1979 and 2019. They would then enlist the help of students from the New York Academy of Arts to recreate the features and ask the public for help in identifying the individuals.

Deadline: 1 month

The 3D-printed skulls

The 3D-printed skulls.

Summary of work: An NRC design and fabrication expert went to RCMP facilities for the scanning phase of the project. As each skull was scanned, the data was sent to the team in Ottawa, who prepared the scan data for 3D printing. The scanning phase took only a few days.

The NRCs' selective laser sintering (SLS) printer printed 4 skulls at a time, and printed them in 5 runs, each taking about 35 hours. The final step of the process was to clean the printed skulls and build a small support stand which was no small feat! All the scan files and 3D printed skulls were serialized using the coroner serial number.

Completed 3D skull being removed from the printer

Completed 3D skull being removed from the printer.

Challenges: The NRC's Design and Fabrication Services (DFS) team had never scanned and printed biological objects—much less human remains—before. The condition of the skulls also presented challenges. Some were damaged by the elements while others had pieces missing, taken by medical examiners during the autopsy to be sent for analysis.

The DFS team had to get creative with the scanning methods to make sure all the pieces could be captured and reassembled correctly later, including the teeth that had a tendency to tumble out of the jaw bones while the skulls were handled.

Cleaning a printed 3D skull

Cleaning a printed 3D skull.

Opportunity: While the industry typically specializes in one field: laser scanning, 3D printing or virtual/augmented reality, the NRC's DFS team offers it all, and is used to working on high-risk or complex projects that industry is reluctant to tackle. That is because they count on diversified experts who can adapt to different working environments, including sensitive projects like this one.

The secret sauce: Every member of the team stepped up with their unique skill sets to deliver this complex project with success. One of the 15 victims was identified within a week from the end of the project. Hopefully, this project will contribute to the identification of some of the remains to bring closure to families.

"You have no idea how much I appreciate your willingness to help with this... This is making a difference... we are helping these victims get their identity back!"

Joe Mullins, forensic imaging specialist and instructor at the New York Academy of Arts.

More details on the RCMP project webpage.

Contact us

Jean-Francois Rioux
Senior Lead,
Advanced Technology Group
Design and Fabrication Services
National Research Council Canada
Government of Canada
Telephone: 613-998-3487