In a small workshop on a quiet Boyes Hot Springs street, Kamela Portuges delicately brushes dust off the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex with all the care of a paleontologist.
But Portuges' background is in puppetry and sculpting, not prehistoric reptiles. Her tiny company makes replicas of dinosaur bones using a 3-D printer, a cutting-edge technology that is gaining new uses at companies across the country.
"I've been fascinated with 3-D printing for a long time," Portuges said. "I love dinosaurs. It's very exciting to be part of this."
The company, Images in 3D, fabricates scale models of dinosaur fossils for museums and collectors.
Portuges and her partner, Lee Armstrong, founded parent company Images in Motion in 1987 and have created models and puppets for movies and TV shows using traditional molding and casting methods. Their credits include "James and the Giant Peach," "Being John Malkovich" and "Ratatouille."
In January, they acquired two 3-D printers from a Bay Area animation studio. They use the printers in their work for the studio and for their own enterprise.
As the name implies, a 3-D printer works much like a traditional printer, but produces copies of three-dimensional objects from a scan of the original. Instead of ink, a nozzle lays down layer upon layer of material until the object takes shape.
The company has two Z-Corporation 3-D printers that use a gypsum-based powder. The technology, still in its infancy, is expensive and time-consuming. A 30-pound tub of gypsum powder costs $1,000, and the machine takes nine hours to make a set of four 7-inch T. rex skulls.
The Sonoma-based company of four has annual revenues of $500,000, though only a fraction of that comes from 3-D printing. The T. rex, Stegosaurus and Camarasaurus skulls are sold through The Bone Room and the Black Hills Institute. PaleoMill provides the digital scans of the original fossils.
For reproducing something as detailed as a dinosaur skull, 3-D printing beats sculpting or casting, Armstrong said. Before 3-D printing, casts of fossils could be made. But if smaller versions were needed, an artist would have to sculpt a replica, losing detail.
"This is the first time you can do it scalable," Armstrong said. "You can do it in amazing detail."
As 3-D printing gains traction, innovators are discovering new uses for the technology. Printers have been used to fabricate food, jewelry, even working plastic guns. Scientists have started to use human cells to print noses, ears and kidneys.
Eric Weinhoffer, a product development engineer at Sebastopol-based Maker Media, which publishes an annual review of 3-D printers, said 3-D printing applications are popping up all the time.
"I think it's awesome, creating accurate models of dinosaur bones," he said. "There's tons of cool stuff going on. It's no longer people printing out little doo-dads."