3D printing helps to return a silverback gorilla back to life

There are several cases where modelers, designers, artists and restorers come to certain limits when creating a piece of work. Particularly when it comes to the creation of bigger, complex and detailed pieces of art.  Traditional methods are proving not only to be more time intensive but often times also very cost intensive. Through a combination of new 3D printing technology and traditional artwork, designers have the possibility “to create efficiencies and help artists render their concepts, from start to finish”, says Rop Arps (Tacoma News Tribune, 2016). 

Rop Arps is the founder and CEO of Form 3D Foundry, a full-service sculpting studio and 3D workshop, offering scanning, sculpting, and 3D printing technologies for the creative industry. One of the collaborating projects of Form 3D Foundry was to immortalize a silverback gorilla named Ivan, by creating a memorial statue of him. The casting pieces for the statue were printed on a VX1000 3D printer. The chronicle of Ivan the gorilla is a story that has involved many people in so many ways to ensure he had a trouble-free life.


A gorilla’s journey

Ivan was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (1962) and after his parents were killed by poachers, Ivan was brought to the United States of America. At the beginning, Ivan stayed with the Johnston family, who owned a pet store, where he got to know his best and lifelong friend, Larry Johnston, who as a teenager shared a home with young Ivan for almost four years. Weighing in at 60 pounds (approx. 28kg), Ivan has grown big and strong, it was decided that living in the home of the Johnston family wasn’t suitable anymore.

In 1967, Ivan was brought into an enclosure at the B&I shopping center in Tacoma, Washington. Ron Irwin, the owner of the B&I store said “he was like a kid, always watching people. He loved to scare them. But there was something more. When you looked in his eyes, he was looking back at you. He understood what was going on” (Glenn, 2016).

Although many visitors of the B&I store loved Ivan, there were others unhappy with his ‘imprisonment’ and made efforts to “free” Ivan from the store into a better environment. The action to free Ivan intensified after National Geographic featured him in one of their magazines and pop-star Michael Jackson offered to take Ivan to his Neverland-Ranch. The B&I store was forced in bankruptcy and Ivan was court-ordered to live in a zoo, where he was then moved to Atlanta, Georgia.

While Ivan lived in the zoo, he gained an extensive crowd of fans and supporters where people from all over the world came to visit him. Thousands of people turned out for his memorial service when he died in in 2012 at the grand old age of 50, which makes him the oldest gorilla in captivity (Alec, 2016).


Creation of Ivan's memorial

Despite Ivan’s passing, his legend lives on. Earl Borgert, whose grandfather owned the B&I store, claimed the ashes of Ivan and pitched the idea to the Board of Commissioners - Tacoma metro park, to build a memorial for Ivan. The board approved the idea under the condition that the family fund and manage the project. After extensive research, the family chose an artist named Douglas Granum to design the statue in Ivan’s honor. 

Since Ivan played an important role in the childhood of the CEO, Rob Arps, Form 3D Labs were very keen to get involved. Rob said: “I grew up with Ivan as my parents used to work at the B&I. Years later, I’d tell people about it and they would stare at me in disbelief. When Doug came to me a few years ago about this I was really excited”. “This is Ivan, it´s my childhood friend” says Arps, “[and] he meant a lot to me” (Tacoma News Tribune, 2016).

The first challenge in the process of creating the statue was to generate a 3D digital model of Ivan. Since gorillas have very unique and distinct looks, just like humans, hundreds of pictures had to be gathered to capture every detail of him. The artist decided to use an iconic image of Ivan holding a flower captured by the media for his inspiration.

According to Arps, 3D printing and digital sculpting played a huge part in creating the statue. He says that “when sculpting with clay, the artist is limited in what kind of changes can be made. With digital sculpting, changes can be made without affecting the overall project. We can solve a series of problems very quickly, where before it would have taken months” (Alec, 2016). “This project is at the front end of a huge change in the process of making art” (Tacoma News Tribune, 2016).


The printing process

Creating the digital file of Ivan took three years, this was to ensure every single feature of the gorilla was captured. Due to the size of the sculpture, the digital file of Ivan was separated into several individual pieces which were then printed in PMMA poweder on voxeljet´s VX1000 3D-Printer. Once all the parts were dipped in wax, they were used to produce a ceramic shell for investment casting. The parts were then cast in bronze before they were finally welded and assembled together to the full-sized statue. During the molding process, a small amount of Ivan’s ashes were integrated into each piece of bronze that made up the final sculpture. The finished statue is approximately 6 feet tall (~ 183 cm) and weights about 600 pounds (~ 280 kg). As Ron Irwin said, “Ivan really impacted two cities” (Glenn, 2016) and this statue really helps to tell his unique and touching story.