Innovation at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory: 3D Printing

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Detailed Description

USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory physical science technician Frank Younger describes innovative use of 3D printing technology to manufacture parts to aid in volcano monitoring.


Date Taken:

Length: 00:03:11

Location Taken: HI, US

Video Credits

Producer: Janet Babb, Geologist, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory,

Video production: Katherine Mulliken, Geologist, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory,


Hi, I’m Frank Younger.  I’m a Physical Science Technician here at the USGS–Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, atop Kīlauea. And, as part of my job duties, I get to make things.

One of the newer techniques that we’ve started to use here to make tools, parts, and other components to assist us with volcano monitoring, is digital fabrication technology. That looks like this, it’s a 3D-modeling environment that includes three-dimensional drafting, using software such as this.  We are able to brainstorm ideas and try different things on for size, see what works, tweak ideas. It’s a back-and-forth process between myself as a technician, and my scientific colleagues, the other technicians.  We are able to rapidly proto-type these ideas using 3-D printing technology.

For example, this is a tool that we custom-designed in order to install a tiltmeter down a 50-ft borehole on the Kona side of the island. This is a tool that allows us to space the tiltmeter itself away from the outside edge of the borehole casing.

The tiltmeter, which is the instrument, fits in the center diameter, and is isolated from the outer diameter of the casing. The wires that are already existing in that hole are channeled to one side, so as not to touch the central part, and sand is backfilled through the holes in order to isolate the tiltmeter from the signals coming from the vibrations of the case.

When we go about designing a new tool or part for volcano monitoring, we’ll start with very simple measurements that are time-honored, such as the use of this dial caliper. This is a very accurate slide caliper that can take very precise measurements. We’ll convert those measurements into geometry, draft those up in the software and extrude the two-dimensional form into a three-dimensional body that will be useful for us in the field.

After we do some software drafting, we can take that file on a small SD card over to the 3-D printer here. 

Here is the 3-D printer at work, and it works by a very simple concept. A filament of plastic is fed through this clear tube down to a heated head, the electronics of which are housed in this jacket. The head itself moves via motor on a set program laying down a very thin melted filament of plastic. Layer by layer it creates a solid body by building up.

3-D printing and digital fabrication technology has been an exciting new tool to add to our toolkit for volcano monitoring here at the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory as we move forward with innovative new solutions to the challenges of volcano monitoring.