Bleeding Edge Technology: Forensic Scientists Use 3D Printing to Reveal the Face of the Future


3D printing is revolutionizing many industries and forensic science is no exception. The experts at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) are using this cutting-edge technology to identify fallen soldiers so that their families can have closure and their remains can be appropriately laid to rest. It’s a fairly involved process but it bodes well for forensic scientists throughout the United States. As the 3D printing technology becomes cheaper and more accessible it is going to open up opportunities for the identification of previously unidentifiable remains and may help close cases that are decades old. Here’s how it works.

Scan, print, superimpose, solve.

At JPAC they primarily work with the skulls of unidentified soldiers. First, they use special software to scan them and create blueprints for their Projet 3D printer. Then, the scans get printed out into a physical model – a process that used to be an expensive procedure (and one they had to outsource). Now, thanks to 3D printing it’s fast, cheap and efficient. Next, the 3D models are superimposed onto photos of known MIA soldiers to see if there is a match. Forensic scientists have long known that our skull shapes can reveal race and sex, but the 3D printed models allow JPAC’s scientists to do far more than that. They can compare the unique shapes and angles of each skull to the images they have on file and match specific points until they can positively identify the remains. Through this process they are able to identify as many as seven soldiers a month.

Revealing History via Forensics

While the experts at JPAC are busy identifying POW and MIA soldiers, experts at Swansea University have 3D printed a warrior (an archer to be exact) whose remains date to around 1545 AD.  Like the scientists at JPAC, they used scans of the archer’s bones and then took the process one step further, extrapolating what his face would have looked like based on his bone structure. Add a lot of forensic expertise and a little 3D printing technology into the mix and voila – a glimpse of the past we could never have previously imagined.

In order to reconstruct the archer’s face, Swansea University’s team leaned heavily on the skills of forensic scientist Oscar Nilsson. Nilsson works with law enforcement in Sweden and is renowned for his ability to accurately reconstruct faces using only the person’s skull to guide him.


The Face of the Future


Perhaps the most exciting use of 3D printing in forensics is yet to come though. The research of doctoral student Heather Dewey-Hagborg may literally hold the key to solving crimes of the future (and the past!). She has created a computer program capable of projecting what a person’s face looks like using a sample of their DNA. Once she has the projection of their face complete, she uses 3D printing to make a life-size model. Can you imagine finding DNA at a crime scene, projecting the person’s face, printing it out, then using that model in an APB or for release to the media? Suspects could be identified and located far faster, even if their DNA isn’t in the registry! Artist sketches are rarely as useful as law enforcement officers would like them to be, but a life-size model of the suspect based on their DNA? That would be priceless! Even without having a suspect’s DNA, moving from a 2D sketch to a 3D printed facial model could result in far more arrests. Dewey-Hagborg is quick to note that her software is a work in progress and does not render an exact image of the persons face. Still, with this kind of technology on the horizon it’s an exciting time to be in forensics!