Paleontologists at Drexel University in Philadelphia say the technology can create accurate scale models of real fossils to test hypotheses about how dinosaurs moved.
"Technology in paleontology hasn't changed in about 150 years," researchers Kenneth Lacovara said. "We use shovels and pickaxes and burlap and plaster. It hasn't changed -- until right now."
Lacovara has begun creating 3-D scans of giant dinosaur bones and other fossils and plans to use 3D printing technology, used for rapid prototyping and manufacturing objects based on a digital design, to create models for testing the mechanics of how long-extinct animals moved and behaved, a Drexel release reported.
"It's kind of like Star Trek technology, where you can press a button and the object pops out," Lacovara said.
A 6-inch model of a dinosaur bone can be printed in a few hours using current technology, he said.
With enormous dinosaur fossils, Lacovara said, it's physically impossible to manipulate the bones to test theories about mechanics and movement, so scaled-down replicas that preserve the exact shape and proportion of the bones can help.
"We don't know a lot about the way dinosaurs move," Lacovara said. "How did they stand? How did they ambulate? Did they run or trot? How did they reproduce? It's all a bit mysterious."