The large-scale fabrication work we produce at Blue Rhino Studio has to combine artistry with technical perfection. A prime example is our project for the Field Museum in Chicago, one of America’s leading natural-history museums. They are launching a traveling exhibit called “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age,” for which they need life-size flesh reproductions of the prehistoric animal skeletons and casts in their permanent exhibit.

Our studio’s usual way of fabricating a project like this requires our talented sculptors to directly hand-carve gray sculpture foam, working to scale. In this case that might be a 13-foot-tall Columbian Mammoth, considered to be the heaviest land mammal in history. That hand-carving process is prohibitive now, due to the recent steep rise in the cost of the foam.

We turned to 3D digital scanning as a way to switch from expensive sculpture foam to an inexpensive material, extruded polystyrene—that’s roofing insulation—that we buy in 3-inch deep sheets. We start with a hand-sculpted small model—on a scale of one inch to the foot. That model undergoes an approval process by the Field Museum paleontologists, and then it’s ready to scan. The entire figure is scanned, then digitally divided into about 20 parts for cutting, and each part is assembled from a stack of CNC-milled slices. We can then continue our traditional finishing process by hand.

As our Digital Artist and technician, I was Blue Rhino’s liaison with 3D Digital. We’ve had the EScan unit for about four months now and have gained some great advantages through using it. Taking scans of the small models is very satisfying, because the individual scans show the important small details, so I know I’ve achieved accuracy.

The merges get a little tricky, but whenever I had difficulty I was able to speak with Satish at 3DD right away. I was probably on the phone with 3D Digital about a dozen times. Each time I was able to get my issue solved and continue on with the work. Because of the detail and accuracy we need, I hand-finish detail on the merged 3D file with a software called Zbrush. All the animals we’ve completed look great, and are perfectly true to our scale models. The museum curators have been thrilled with them.

On smaller figures, the time required using the scanner is about equal to hand work. On any figure larger than an average-sized horse, the time savings using our scanner is dramatic. Cost savings is significant no matter what size figure we’re building, because we’re able to work with polystyrene, instead of sculpture foam. The other advantage we’ve gained is increased capacity. Jobs that in the past we may not have bid on because they were too big to complete in timely fashion, we can go after now.

We take great pride in our work here at Blue Rhino Studio, which demands the highest standards of accuracy, art and aesthetics. Having 3D Digital as a resource helps us run our operation more flexibly and profitably, while still maintaining those high standards.

Beth Zaiken