Bones, Clones, and Discovering Unknowns

You may be surprised, but your skeleton tells stories about your life. From your bones, scientists can identify your age, where you’re from, and if you’re a boy or a girl.  

Your skeleton also shows if you’ve broken bones or had cavities. In our research laboratory, we attempt to learn these things from the deceased – but with a twist: Our bones are 3D scanned and 3D printed! 

3D printed
3D printed research skeleton

3D-scanned or “digital” bones are realistic images that make it possible to learn about skeletons while the real bones are buried in the ground or stored hundreds of miles away in a museum. Studying real human remains is an honor, but there are many laws about re-burying remains quickly. With digital images, we can take our time studying them. We can also share them with scientists all over the world. 

Using a computer, you can move 3D images around the same way you can move bones right in front of you! You can turn an image in all directions, so you don’t miss any details. How do these 3D scanners work? 3D scanners use lights or lasers to capture information from the bones. The scanner sends out a light or laser, which hits the bone and reflects. The scanner records information about that reflection. Many 3D scanners are portable, allowing us to travel and scan almost anything. Scientists can also use CT machines, like the ones in a hospital, to make 3D images. But such machines are expensive and hard to move. CT machines use X-rays instead of lights or lasers, so they can record information from inside your bones! We also depend on CT machines, because it is important for us to see inside the bones.  

We can take this 3D scanner to schools and 3D scan students too!

Rachel Fulks
Researcher Rachel Fulks 3D scanning a subject

Two of our current research projects use 3D scanning.  

The first project deals with skeletal remains. We use 3D scans to conduct detailed bone research (osteology) on Native American and Indian human remains. Using digital bones allows us to spend more time with the remains and makes it possible to 3D print the bones. 3D-printed bones can even be shared in class with students like you! Right now, we are trying to determine the age, ethnicity, how they lived, and how they died for six sets of human remains. Because we have real skeletons, we can test many different scanners to determine the best one to use. In the future, we hope to scan two rare North American mummies housed in a museum in West Virginia.  

Skeletal/Fossil researc
Skeletal/Fossil research

Our second 3Dscanning project scans living people to calculate their body composition, or body fat percent. Knowing how much fat you have inside your body is important for staying healthy. For this experiment, we use something you might have in your own home: an Xbox Kinect. When a person is scanned, they are turned into a hollow image. Imagine a chocolate bunny that is empty on the inside when you take a bite. The hollow space inside the model is called the volume. We use the person’s volume and their real weight to figure out their density. The density is put into a formula that calculates how much fat is inside the person we scanned. Body fat percentage is better than body mass index (BMI) for studying health. Muscle is denser than fat, so someone who is really muscular may be told they are obese when using their BMI, which is not true and can hurt their self-esteem!

3D printed objects
3D printed objects for our classrooms

Now for the coolest part of our research. Everything we 3D scan can be 3D printed! Our 3D scans are printed on our Mcor ARKe 3D printer, which creates paper clones. We were the first university in the United States to get this 3D printer! The Mcor ARKe 3D printer works by laying down hundreds of sheets of paper and cutting out the image. Imagine gluing two pieces of paper together…. and another, and another, then driving over them with a car. Well, actually a heated, one-ton press. That’s how our 3D printed models are made. It’s like an Easy-Bake Oven, but our ingredients are digital information, paper, and glue. Put in the information, wait several hours, open the door, and you find a bone clone or other model inside. The pressed and hardened paper reminds you of wood, and that’s pretty much what our models are. We use our 3Dprinted models in science classes where students can handle and even break the models! If one breaks, we’ll just 3D print another one. The possibilities are endless.


Body composition what your body is made out of, usually described as lean tissue and fat tissue. 

Density mass divided by volume; how compact a material is.

Human remains a deceased human being; human skeletal material.

Osteology the study of bones and how they work.

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  • Kristy Henson

    I am an Assistant Professor of Forensic Science at Fairmont State University in Fairmont, West Virginia. In college, I worked hard to become a paleoanthropologist and research human skeletal remains and 3D technology.