We’ve already seen the 3D printing technology that promises to turn a household desk into a mini manufacturing plant used by the Smithsonian Institution to produce replicas of key models for display and traveling exhibitions. Now a 3D printing process is being used to help restore ancient artifacts from China’s Forbidden City.

Beijing’s Forbidden City, which houses the Palace Museum, is home to an extensive collection of priceless artwork and artifacts dating back hundreds of years, including the largest collection of preserved wooden structures in the world. A 1925 audit put the number of items stored in the Forbidden City at some 1.17 million.

Conventional restoration methods involve a painstaking and expensive process of measuring, photographing and manually repairing of objects. Using 3D digital technologies developed over the past few years at England’s Loughborough University by PhD student Fangjin Zhang and colleagues, the restoration process should be sped up significantly, saving both time and money.

After the shape of the original objects is captured using laser or optical scanners, damaged areas can be digitally restored ready for 3D printing. While such a technique has been possible for a while, the Loughborough Design School team is developing a formalized approach specifically tailored to the restoration of historic artifacts.

The Chinese Government has asked Loughborough University to use its 3D printing process to repair several specific artifacts, including the ceiling and enclosure of a pavilion in the Emperor Chanlong Garden.

“We are delighted to be working with the museum, using this very modern and innovative technique to restore and safeguard some of China’s most important artefacts,” said Loughborough Design School’s Dr Ian Campbell. “There is real scope for this technique to be used in museums across the world.”

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