3D Printing Geological Models For Education, Research, and Technical Communication - 3D Printing as an Emerging Technology in Geosciences

Course Description

3D printing is an emerging technology in the geosciences that provides a fast, cost-effective way to transform digital designs into tangible models. These tangible models enable a physical representation of 3D geometries and enhance communication among researchers, students, technical management, and non-experts. Whereas digital models can be viewed only on a screen, a 3D printed model can be experienced with other senses: it can be viewed at different light angles and manipulated. For research purposes, 3D-printed models can be experimented with in the laboratory to validate numerical predictions of rock properties.

The course is designed in two days to cover broad topics related to various 3D printing applications. Day 1 provides an overview of different 3D printing techniques that use both rock-like materials (e.g., sand, gypsum, clay) and polymers (e.g., plastics, resins). While these cost-effective methods are shaping the future of manufacturing, 3D printing geological media requires profound understanding of capabilities and limitations of each technique and its material properties.

Day 1 includes a module on how to digitally design and 3D print models for use in reservoir rock analysis, geomorphology, and paleontology. For reservoir rock analysis, 3D printing of near-identical rock proxies provides an approach to conduct repeatable laboratory experiments without destroying natural rock samples. The course also discusses case studies of 3D printing applications in the geoscience and engineering research as well as in the petroleum industry. Participants will learn how to deploy 3D-printed models to improve technical communication to diverse audiences (e.g., engineers, managers, community stakeholders). The integration of digital data sets with 3D-printed surface and subsurface features will help participant to learn about communication for societal objectives. Discussion of 3D printing as a teaching tool will help students and educators to understand the practical approaches of using 3D-printed models in explaining complex concepts and 3D data. The course will provide insights on future implementation of 3D printing techniques in geosciences, including reduced costs of 3D printers, open-source software, and free access to digital model repositories.

Day 2 involves practical components of using 3D printing for characterization of reservoir rocks and geomorphic features. 3D-printed porous and fracture models are used to investigate fundamental research questions in the areas of single and multiphase fluid flow as well as reactive transport in reservoir sandstones and carbonate rocks. Participants will design 3D-printable models containing pore and fracture networks using CAD and computed tomography data. They will have an opportunity to manufacture their models with local 3D printing shops. In addition, participants will be provided with pre-printed replicas equivalent to their digital models to investigate the fidelity of 3D printing techniques and materials. Participants will learn how 3D-printed models can be used in destructive and non-destructive analyses to study geomechanical and transport properties (e.g., porosity, pore sizes, grain sizes, fracture apertures, connectivity of pore and fracture networks). Participants will also gain experience with TouchTerrain app that allows to generate 3D-printable terrain models with no CAD or GIS software.

Course Objectives

On completion of the course, participants will be able to:

  • Understand capabilities and limitations of different 3D printing techniques;
  • Demonstrate how to digitally design 3D-printable models using CAD software or computed tomography data;
  • Provide the assessment of digital models and their relative 3D-printed replicas;
  • Characterize how 3D printing can increase the effectiveness of communicating geoscience data;
  • Apply 3D printing in current or future research and teaching.

Course Outline

Day 1: Introduction to 3D printing and review of its current applications

  • Lecture “Overview of 3D printing technology”:
    • Brief history of 3D printing
    • Common 3D printing techniques
    • Materials used and their physical and chemical properties
    • Current and future advances of 3D printing
  • Activity “Methods of transforming digital models into 3D-printed objects”:
    • Which geoscience data are 3D-printable
    • Which 3D printer and material fit digital model parameters
  • Lecture “Applications of 3D printing in the geoscience and engineering research”:
    • Use of 3D printing in petroleum industry
    • 3D printing as a tool in reservoir rock analysis
    • Scaling in geomorphology, geomechanics, and groundwater studies
  • Activity “3D printing as a communication tool for”:
    • Technical management
    • Community stakeholders
    • Researchers presenting their technical studies to both experts and non-experts
  • Activity “3D printing as a teaching tool for”:
    • Students learning new 3D concepts and models
    • Researchers involved in data exchange
  • Live demonstration of 3D printing rock, fossil, and terrain models in the course of day 1

Day 2: Application of 3D printing in modeling porous media and geomorphic features

  • Practical exercise “Digital design of 3D-printable models”:
    • With CAD (idealized porous models)
    • From computed tomography data (reservoir rock samples)
    • Using TouchTerrain app (terrain models)
  • Activity “Assessment of accuracy of 3D-printed models”:
    • Success or failure of external and internal features
    • Post-processing efficiency and precision
  • Lecture “Validation of flow properties in reservoir rock models”:
    • Advantages of destructive tests
    • Limitations of non-destructive tests
    • Value of adding 3D printing into reservoir characterization workflow
  • 3D printing models in coordination with local 3D printing service companies
  • Live demonstration of 3D printing reservoir rock models

Participants’ Profile

The course is designed in 2 days to accommodate a broad range of participant groups. Day 1 of the course covers overview of 3D printing techniques and methods and is intended for general audience. It is useful for students, geoscientists, engineers, who are interested in current advances of 3D printing in research and teaching. It can also be beneficial for managers and stakeholders who want to learn the use of 3D printing in technical communications. Day 2 covers research applications of 3D printing in porous media and geomorphology and involves practical section on creating 3D-printable models of reservoir rocks and terrains. It is beneficial for geologists, petrophysicists, stratigraphers, geophysicists, geomorphologists, reservoir and geomechanical engineers and geomodellers from both industry and academia who are interested in transforming digital models into tangible objects that can be viewed, touched, manipulated, and tested in the lab as natural rocks.

Participants will receive hand-on experience on creating digital rock and terrain models, validating their accuracy and exploring the best methods to 3D print them. In addition, day 2 of the course will involve review of current advances in research on 3D printing reservoir rock models that involves investigation of petrophysical and geomechanical properties of 3D-printed rock analogues. Skills obtained during day 1 will allow participants to be engaged in day 2 activities without prerequisites. If participants take only day 2, basic knowledge about major 3D printing techniques and materials as well as CAD modeling and computed tomography is required.


Prior knowledge of CAD modeling and interpretation of computed tomography data would be useful, but is not required.

Recommended Reading

  • Ishutov S., Jobe T.D., Zhang S., Gonzalez M.A., Agar S.M., Hasiuk F., Watson F., Geiger S., Mackay E., Chalaturnyk R., 2017. 3D printing for geoscience: fundamental research, education, and applications for the petroleum industry. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin. DOI: 10.1306/0329171621117056.
  • Ishutov S., Hasiuk F., Fullmer S., Buono A., Gray J., Harding C., 2017. Resurrection of a Reservoir Sandstone from Tomographic Data Using 3-D Printing. American Association of Petroleum Geology Bulletin 101(9): 1425-1443. DOI:10.1306/11111616038. Invited.
  • Ishutov S., Hasiuk F., Harding C., Gray J.N., 2015. 3-D printing sandstone porosity models. AAPG/SEG’s Interpretation 3(3): SX49-SX61. DOI: 10.1190/INT-2014-0266.1.
  • Hasiuk F., 2014. Making Things Geological: 3-D Printing in the Geosciences. Geological Society of America Today 24: 28–29. Invited.

About the Instructors

Prof. Dr. Franek Hasiuk is an expert in carbonate geology and 3D printing. His dissertation from the University of Michigan involved understanding the secular variation of seawater chemistry and temperature from marine carbonate chemistry. He worked at ExxonMobil Upstream Research for four years where he developed a deep appreciation for carbonate petrophysics while working on a variety of projects including a global synthesis of carbonate microporosity. Since joining Iowa State University, the mission of his “GeoFabLab” has been to better understand the chemistry and petrophysics of rocks by using 3D-printed rock models as well as man-made rocks, like concrete and asphalt.

Dr. Sergey Ishutov is an expert in 3D printing porous media from CAD and tomographic models. He is currently a researcher at the University of Alberta. He has received B.Sc. in petroleum geology from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and M.Sc. in geology from California State University Long Beach. His research experience is in acquisition, processing, and interpretation of seismic data and analysis of computed tomography data from reservoir core plugs. Dr. Ishutov received multiple awards and research grants from professional societies and industry collaborators to establish foundation research in 3D printing reservoir rock samples. He has work experience at major petroleum companies, including ExxonMobil, Aramco, and Shell.