Satellite Tags Made to Order

3-D printing meets fish tracking

Conservation biologists want in on the 3-D printing revolution.

John Barnes of Australia’s national science agency CSIRO is designing and printing titanium fish tags to help marine biologists study big fish such as marlin, sharks, and tuna. The tags the biologists had been using before were rather crude, one-size-fits-all devices. Now, 3-D printing can customize tags quickly and cheaply with minimal waste.

Materials engineer Barnes and his team have printed a dozen different variations on a fish tag for the biologists to try out, making the tags progressively smaller and more streamlined. They also added subtly textured spots where a fish’s tissue might grow into the tag, helping it stay in place over time.

After all, if you were standing on the deck of a boat off the coast of Tasmania to plunge a satellite-tracking tag into the body of a shark, using a long-handled spear, you’d want that tag to be as easy to insert as possible. And you’d want that tag to stay in place as firmly as possible, just to minimize the amount of time spent standing on the deck of a boat and spearing a shark.

“You can build all the intricate detail you want into it,” Barnes says. With 3-D printing, “That detail comes relatively free.” But the customized tags would be almost impossible to create using traditional manufacturing processes.

The CSIRO team is working with titanium, an ideal material to use for fish tags since it doesn’t corrode in saltwater and is nontoxic to living tissues. Also, says Barnes, who heads the agency’s titanium-research group, “Titanium is a perfect material to do 3-D printing because it’s expensive and it’s difficult to machine.” Three-D printing minimizes waste and circumvents traditional manufacturing constraints.

Barnes says 3-D printing technology could aid many different ecological research projects, which often need very specific devices in small numbers on a shoestring budget. In the future, for example, the team may produce slightly different tags for each species of fish. “It can be as perfect as you want it to be,” Barnes says. ❧

—Sarah DeWeerdt

Photo ©CSIRO/Simon Hunter

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