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Oxford University replicates historical instruments with 3D printing

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The Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford houses a stunning collection of historical musical instruments from around the world. Unlike many types of artefact, which can simply be looked at and understood, having a collection of instruments presents a unique challenge, as hearing them is part of the experience.

According to the museum, it receives many requests from researchers and members of originating communities to play the instruments it houses, but, because of the state of many of the historical instruments, the originals cannot be safely played—whether because of fragility or pesticide contamination.

In a bid to recreate and offer playable historical instruments, the museum recently teamed up with the Department of Engineering and Science and the Department of Conversation at Oxford to launch the Plastic Fantastic project, supported by funding from the Oxford University IT Innovation Challenge.

Oxford 3D printing instruments

The project aims to use new technologies, such as 3D scanning and 3D printing to digitally and physically recreate historical instruments in such a way that the feel and sound closely match the original’s.

The recorder test

One of the instruments recreated in the Plastic Fantastic project was a 17th century ivory recorder made by John Goddard of London. The instrument underwent a CT scan at Cranfield University, which was then converted into a 3D model by Oxford researchers. Crucially, the detailed scan included details about the flute’s interior, which would be important to consider to match its sound.

However, the team encountered a challenge when it came to scanning the wooden elements of the flute—a wooden block in the mouthpiece—because the original component had been damaged by woodworm and the dry, porous quality of the wood. To overcome the hurdle, the researchers reached out to Polygonica, a mesh processing software provider, to reverse engineer the part.

“We used Polygonica’s shrink-wrapping algorithms to create a faithful representation of the outer surface of the original model, whilst removing errors and unwanted internal structure,” said Dr. Simon Vickers, Senior Developer at MachineWorks Limited, the company behind Polygonica. “This resulted in an accurate and printable STL file.”

With the 3D model of the recorder and mouthpiece ready to go, the Oxford team 3D printed a series of five flute replicas, each made from a different material or using a different 3D printing process. This past September, the 3D printed recorders were presented to the public through a live performance, which compared the original instrument to each of the replicas. The audience was then asked to vote for the woodwind instrument that sounded most like the original.

Though the final results of the comparison have not yet been released—there is more research and testing to be done—the research team did reveal that one judge said a printed recorder actually sounded better than the original.

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Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault is a Montreal-based content writer and editor with five years of experience covering the additive manufacturing world. She has a particular interest in amplifying the voices of women working within the industry and is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM sector. Tess holds a master's degree in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam.

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