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3D-Printed Trial Exhibits: Futuristic Technology, Old-School Storytelling

Let’s go back several decades.  For a moment, picture this:  It’s a hot summer day; windows are cracked in a large, packed courtroom.  We center on an attorney (maybe a Gregory Peck type), unfazed by the heat, of course, mid-case, pacing before the jury box with a confident stride.  Today, in this moment, he’s trying to demonstrate a few seatbelt mechanics for the jury in a product liability case.  He’s got poise, elegance even, and he’s nailing that demonstration – but the entire row of car seats he’s hauled into the courtroom looks just a bit out of place.  And was really annoying to drag in.

These days, that really doesn’t happen much.  Mr. Peck instead projects an electronically generated model of a car seat, complete with seatbelt animations.  With the advent of electronic demonstratives (graphics and PowerPoint slides, animations, etc.) in the 1980s and their continued advancement in versatility and sophistication, trial teams have made such unwieldy props a thing of the past.  When once attorneys were forced to deal with those rows of car seats or any large machinery, the ability to demonstrate digitally has made presenting smooth, efficient, refined.

But there’s a problem with that.  There are actually situations when producing a real physical object in the courtroom while explaining concepts is beneficial, if not vital, to jurors’ comprehensive understanding.  From a storytelling standpoint, attorneys who insisted on working with the real thing were doing something right.  The issue with widespread electronic demonstratives is that there are some things that just get lost in the digital translation.  If only there were a practical and convenient way to bring that physicality back….

Enter the (relatively) new age of 3D Printing.  3D printing technology is proving to have nearly limitless applications.  Over the last decade it has made its way into numerous industries:  Aerospace, Architecture, Automotive, Defense, Medical, Dental, and Industrial Design, just to name a few.  The technology’s versatility has fueled its rapid development and widespread adoption; even the general public can now acquire it with minimal investment.

3D printing is also changing the way attorneys can think about their presentations. It brings back that effective, old-school storytelling method – and comes with the much-needed luxury of being sensible and adaptable.

What Is 3D Printing?



3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) encompasses a number of additive processes used to make a digital 3D object into a physical 3D object using extruded materials.  To make a print you first need a 3D model or other digital data source like a CAD (computer-aided design) file.  The data source is loaded into the printer interface, it processes the data, and then starts printing.  Using an inkjet printer head under computer control, material (often a form of plastic) is laid down, layer by layer, eventually forming a completed 3D object.

In layman’s terms, a digital model is “printed” using any of a variety of materials into a fully functional, accurate, three-dimensional physical form.

The Power of Real Objects in the Courtroom

In cases with complex concepts, your points can and should be explained to a jury with the aid of pictures, diagrams, animations and yes – physical objects too.  And there are certain pros and cons to each medium.  But since this post is about 3D printing, let’s discuss some of the major ways a convenient, tangible model can beat out its 2D companions in the never-ending quest to increase your jury’s attention and comprehension.

To truly appreciate the power of a 3D-printed object, we need to delve just a bit into educational psychology:

“Active” learning has been a big buzzword in recent years – the idea being to increase the learner’s level of involvement in the learning process.  In direct contrast with “passive” learning (essentially the process of learning by just listening and watching), active learning emphasizes variety, discussion and hands-on interaction.  Because it’s inclusive by nature, it has been found to better maintain students’ attention and energy, and increase comprehension.

Now, we already know variety is important to hold jurors’ attention.  And unfortunately a person-to-person discussion between you and the jurors is out of the question.  But where 3D printing shows its true power is in the hands-on experience.  This kinesthetic (as opposed to visual or auditory) part of active learning can be huge in the courtroom.  Your 3D model is not just another PowerPoint slide, it’s a means for jurors to see and absorb in real space how something works.  Jurors can cognitively link what you tell them with what they experienced for themselves.

Researchers are continuing to study various “learning styles,” but we do know that many people – and likely at least some of your jurors – prefer to learn, and are more successful in learning, kinesthetically.  Furthermore, jurors who have difficulty visualizing in three dimensions will find it much easier to understand your points when the object is right there in front of them, rather than trying to translate it from a blueprint or engineering drawing.  Moreover, most people actually benefit from a variety (there’s that word again) of learning styles, regardless of their preferred style.

It might be easy to get a mental image of small children, touching and picking up everything around (or, equally likely, stuffing it in their mouths), because that’s key for their brain development.  But even for adults, learning by doing – or at least observing a physical model in action – is a great way to get a firm grasp on the concrete, which can then be abstracted and applied to more complex concepts. So really any juror, and in particular those partial to hands-on learning, can better understand and remember the concepts you teach them with the aid of a physical object – whether by witnessing a demonstration or by providing them a model to investigate themselves.  (Wherever possible, seek permission to get the exhibit into the jurors’ hands so they can investigate it for themselves.)

Besides its unique educational power, there are numerous other ways in which 3D printing technology is a useful tool for a trial team:

3D Printing in Discovery and in Trial

Preservation of Exhibits. If you only have one of a particular physical exhibit you are probably going to want to keep it intact and undamaged. What if, in the course of preparing your case, you realize that you need to show your exhibit dismantled or cut in half to demonstrate its inner workings or components? You may not want to sacrifice your exhibit for that purpose and risk damaging it or losing parts. Preserving the original is even more critical if the original is evidence in the case and therefore must be preserved intact for the other side as well. In this case, creating a 3D-printed duplicate would allow you to take apart your object as needed while retaining the original.

Restoration of Exhibits. If your physical exhibit has been damaged and it is the only one you have access to, you can use 3D printing to create a duplicate of the object in its original state for comparison.

Recreation of Exhibits. If you need a physical exhibit that is no longer in production, but you have access to blueprints, diagrams or forensic data you can use it to have a 3D model constructed and printed.

Medical Exhibits. With thousands of body parts and procedures, 3D printing allows you the amazing ability to take an X-ray or a medical scan and print out an exact replica of your client’s bones, tissue or organs. Imagine your expert witness being able to hold and point at the 3D model versus a picture of the same thing on a screen. Your jury will be able to understand the object and its relative scale of size and intricacy.

Of course, as with any technology, there are limitations you’ll have to consider.  In the case of 3D printing, these include time requirements, available printing materials, object size and operational costs.

Yet the imprint value of a real object that a juror can see and potentially touch in the courtroom is immeasurable.  You won’t have to rely merely on an animation or a slide or a picture.  Not to mention, you’ll have access to objects that can be scaled to a more manageable, portable, presentable size.  And when the jurors go back to deliberate, that tangible something you offered them may stick in their minds far better than any high-res digital image.  As you begin choosing the best medium for each of your exhibits, let us help you determine how to best implement this new technology to achieve your goals at trial.



By:  Adam Bloomberg, Managing Director – Visual Communications

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