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GIS 3D Printing Made Easier With Software

Rapid prototype technologies are a natural fit for 3D topographic or terrain mapping, because of the models' geometric complexity, and their lack of a need for any special structural integrity.  The limitation in the past has been in dealing with the tremendous variety of geographic information system (GIS) data formats.  But recently, a number of companies have developed software to more easily translate the GIS data into a STL format.

One such company is 3D Outlook Corporation, the developer of  The Washington state company is a software developer, not a service bureau.  In fact, 3D printer manufacturer Z Corporation approached 3D Outlook CEO Tom Gaskins two years ago to ask him if he would consider developing the software in order to occupy Z Corp.'s idle printers.  As author of NASA's World Wind, an open source virtual globe, Gaskins was a natural candidate for the work.   

Today, using a Google Earth-type interface, you can have any small corner of the globe color 3D printed for you, in a Z Corp ink-jetted plaster and polymer-based model.  A 5" square model costs $37.95 USD, 6" is $49.95, & 8" is $69.95.  3D Outlook utilizes geospatial data from NASA and the US Geological Survey.

Gaskins also licenses the mapping software to other companies, like Anvil Prototype in North Carolina, 3D Creation Lab in the UK, and 3DLandprint in Denmark.  The Danish models are notable for their use of light detection and ranging (LIDAR) data, which allows for the incorporation of building and vegetation features.

Gaskins says that orders through range from a few a week to "10s of orders every time an article comes out," but that he's not getting as many inquiries now.  "As a retail product, it's not a critical thing," he says.  "We're using the time to develop the software further."

Over the last six months, Gaskins has been working on software to allow people to load in their own map or imagery datasets.   He plans to offer this capability by the end of 2009, although the variety of data, and the need for a simple interface, is proving challenging.

"The world of GIS data is really a mess," Gaskins tells RapidToday.  "It varies on compression and has different projections.  There are 10 different formats in common use - regarding elevation, even more than that.  Much of it is processed to work well on a flat map, so we have to put it back in its original form." 

Fortunately, there is no shortage of data sources.  And while Google Earth may use proprietary data from DigitalGlobe, free sources abound.  "There are literally hundreds of sites you can draw data from for free," says Gaskins.

Subtractive Manufacturing of Terrain Models

Also operating in Redmond, Washington is another company that is concentrating in 3D geo-modeling applications.  2Bot Corporation has developed new hardware and software for the subtractive manufacture of scale models.  Now, the 10-employee company is debuting its 2Bot ModelMaker, a no-frills CNC milling

Seattle Scale Model
0.6 x 0.9 meter scale model of Seattle, made with 2Bot's ModelMaker & $60 USD in materials

machine with sophisticated software.  

"We started five years ago and we developed everything in house," says 2Bot CEO Paul Nye.  "The concept was affordability and ease of use - as easy to use as a laser printer driver."

One factor in the affordability of the ModelMaker is its mechanical simplicity.  "We have spent a lot of time engineering the machine to be mass produced," says Nye.  "We tended to chase mechanical problems into the software - with enough computer power, you can use components that are crooked."  The machine utilizes a distributed network, putting the computing power in each place where action is occurring. 

By rapid prototyping standards, the ModelMaker is inexpensive (about $12,000), but the total cost of ownership is the real advantage.  Instead of using a pricey proprietary resin as with 3D printing, the 2Bot machine uses everyday materials.  Nye says the "mother lode" material is extruded polystyrene, the pink or blue building insulation material found at Home Dept and Lowes.  "You can sand it and paint it and it's almost free," says Nye.  "Material [for the ModelMaker] can be as inexpensive as $0.50 [USD] per board foot as opposed to $250-1,500 per board foot for additive systems."   

"We want it so it's not an economic decision to make a model," continues Nye.  "Let's say you make a model but don't like the scale - if you've just dropped $500, you'll live with it."

Nye says the ModelMaker is similar in price to a Roland desktop milling machine, but that his 2Bot Studio software package is better suited to making 3D scale models.  "We interface directly into ESRI, ArcGIS,  and other GIS-type file formats," says Nye, "and our software will automatically tile data into pieces, allowing the user to make models of any size."  Currently, Nye says 2Bot is developing an interface for LandXML, a growing non-proprietary standard in land development, surveying, and civil engineering.   

Nye is just starting to introduce the ModelMaker around Seattle, but he has high hopes for the future.   He has a former VP of Hewlett Packard on board as an angel investor, and a goal of developing a sub-$1,000 machine in five years.    

Other Notable Activity

Around the world, there are a number of other professionals that are also doing interesting work in the GIS space.   In the United Kingdom, Drummond Masterton does three to four projects a year.  Masterton is a senior lecturer in 3D Design, and a Research Assistant in 3D Digital Production at University College Falmouth

This year he created a memorial bowl for Fausto Coppi's double victory in the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia in 1949.  The bowl has the landscape around Briancon, France milled from a solid billet of aluminum as its internal surface.  An older project was to create a scale version of Scotland's Ben Nevis mountain in the base of a tea cup.

Masterton uses data sources that range from hand drawn maps to Digimap contour data to satellite scan data.  He uses Form_Z or 3D Studio Max to hand build the 3D CAD data files, or Rhino to interpret the laser scan data of mining and geological studies.  (He has also produced terrain models for physical geographers and environmentalists studying tidal erosion and pollutant runoff).

Masterton says he goes back and forth between using additive fabrication and CNC milling to create his models.  "I almost always use RP to verify data before doing complex fourth and fifth axis machining jobs, as the cost implications of getting it wrong are too high," Masterton relates by email.

Masterton's biggest challenge?  Finding a computer powerful enough to handle large datasets, like 1m resolution satellite data.  "The resulting STL surfaces are large files," he says.

Other geo-modelers will tell you the biggest challenge is translating data from its native GIS format to a STL file.  A popular tool is Able Software Corp.'s R2V, a raster to vector conversion software for automated map digitizing, GIS data capture and CAD conversion applications. 

Sanat Agrawal, associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Jaypee Institute of Engineering and Technology in India, is working on another tool to reduce data loss while translating digital elevation model (DEM) data into STL file format. 

Agrawal is a veteran geo-modeler, having done extensive terrain modeling at Central University of Technology's Center for Rapid Prototyping and Manufacturing in South Africa.  "The terrain model can be used as an effective communication medium among stakeholders for conservation management," says Agrawal by email.

Consumer Application

As software tools improve, so do the number of commercial applications.  Last month, Austria-based Fluid Forms announced the availability of its so-called Earth Brooch Silver, a 30x30x6mm custom silver brooch that features the terrain of any location on earth.  The jewelry is first 3D printed in wax, then cast in 975 silver.  It costs $342 USD for US residents.

Also available is Earth Lamp White, a custom wall light that features your landscape of choice.  The lampshade is 3D printed in polyamide, and mounted on a brushed aluminum frame.  The cost is $1,467 USD plus shipping for US residents.

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