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Shark Tracking & 3D Printed Devices

MBARI is a nonprofit oceanographic research center located up the coast from the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. In pursuit of solving a decades old mystery of Great White Shark migration patterns, a group of researchers from MBARI approached FATHOM recently with prototype and production needs, aiming to create an innovative “event-triggered” video capture device to be used on sharks off the coast of California. In this featured blog post, learn about how the team at FATHOM helped researchers use additive technologies throughout product realization, from prototyping for form, fit, and function testing, to taking a tool-less manufacturing approach that significantly lowered overall costs.

  • 3D Printing for Faster and Lower Cost Prototyping
  • Additive Manufacturing as a Cost-Effective Solution for High-Value, Low-Volume Applications
  • Direct Digital Manufacturing Strategy Enabling Production Agility

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About the Team at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

Researchers at MBARI have set out to achieve and maintain a position as a world center for advanced research and education in ocean science and technology. Founded by David Packard as an advanced center for ocean research and technology development, using cutting-edge technologies to capture meaningful and measurable results is critical to upholding its mission.

As an early-adopter of 3D printing for research applications, there are many situations for the MBARI team where design freedom is crucial to the function of a part. MBARI often makes manifolds which are difficult or impossible to CNC machine due to long through holes, internal channels, and sharp internal corners. 3D printing has enabled MBARI to freely fabricate these types of parts that otherwise would require extensive work holdings or bonding parts together. The MBARI team has also used 3D printing to create molding tools to pour syntactic foam parts, a material often in oceanography because it is very tolerant to pressure and does not change dimension at 1500 PSI.

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The “Great White Shark Café” Challenge

The Great White Shark population endemic to California coastal waters have a consistent yearly migration pattern, traveling from the coast of California to the Hawaiian Islands and back. Each year, the sharks “hang out” in an underwater region nearly equidistant between their migration points, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline, which has raised many questions from marine biologists and shark experts.

The underwater region, dubbed the “Shark Cafe,” has been an unsolved mystery because the area is known to be essentially an underwater desert—lacking in the flourishing marine life that typically attracts apex predators like Great Whites. About 900 miles off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, the sharks have displayed “interesting behavior at the Shark Cafe,” including sessions where they “rapidly swim up and down between the surface and about 250 meters with occasional pauses at various depths.”

To solve the mystery of this behavior, and discover the attraction of the Shark Cafe region, MBARI researchers proposed a tag-and-record approach that would involve constructing a video attachment for each targeted shark (researchers tested a prototype in 2015 of their shark-cam tag on white sharks in South Africa).

For this next concept, every attachment needed to be durable enough to survive up to 10 months in an underwater environment. The video module specifications also included a max depth of 1200 meters and a photo/video depth of up to 200 meters. The housing needed to be durable so researchers could successfully capture up to eight hours of footage using a Great White Shark Behavior detection algorithm to trigger video and high res data sampling.

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The Solution

FATHOM Account Manager Chris Lem worked with the MBARI team throughout product development, advising on the advantages and disadvantages of different 3D printing technologies. For prototyping, the team opted for VeroClear parts using PolyJet Technology, which allowed the researchers and the FATHOM production team to iterate and improve the video attachment design with an almost see-through material. Iterating in PolyJet up-front allowed the team to make critical changes and understand the interplay of separate components before committing to a final design. Before completing the initial design, the MBARI team also iterated with Nylon parts using SLS Technology for additional strength-to-weight ratio and durability testing. For producing the final parts to be used for field-testing, 3D printing in engineering-grade plastics using FDM Technology proved to be ideal for MBARI’s application because of its high-performance and durability.

3D Printing for Prototype & Additive Manufacturing for Production

MBARI-Blog-(Shark-Cafe)-CAD-FilesBy taking a “front-loaded” approach during the prototyping phase—engaging in many iteration cycles—MBARI engineers could increase knowledge and decrease assumptions faster, earlier in the concept development process. After proving out the design, the team chose to take a direct digital manufacturing approach for the production of the final enclosure because using a traditional manufacturing method for only 20 parts would have increased costs by as much as three times. FDM not only met the critical requirements of the application, it proved to be the most cost-effective option with the greatest flexibility—the MBARI team can 3D print on-demand without having to hold inventory or incur additional costs for design changes in future production runs.


To learn more about the migrating shark population near the California coast and the team at MBARI, check out the institute’s website. Curious to *deep dive* on some other projects from the FATHOM team? Follow us on Facebook // Twitter // LinkedIn // Instagram // YouTube.

Image Credits Include Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Wikimedia

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