Thursday, 25 July 2013

Colour 3D printing of GIS Data

3D printing is underused as a design and communication tool in many sectors. In particular colour 3D printing could be much more widely used as a communication tool in the Energy, Environment, Marine and Coastal, Transport and Water engineering sectors. This is I believe is partly due to lack of knowledge of the techniques and difficulties in getting data out of many software applications for 3D printing. 

Designers using ArcGIS for example can export VRML files which contain colour information. So any of the information in the software model can be exported and 3D printed as a physical colour model. This should present opportunities for engineers working in all of the fields where ArcGIS is used and where communication to a wider audience is required. 

Any combination of map information and topographical
geometry can  be 3D printed.
There is perhaps a tendency for many professionals to stay within software, where constant change is the name of the game. 3D printing a physical model fixes the system at a given point. However if you have public consultation or planning requirements and lets face it none of these disciplines work in isolation from the public, a 3D printed topographical model overlain with graphical information can be a powerful tool. A physical model can convey complex layers of information in a way that is just not not possible with with paper or screen. Importantly a colour 3D print can communicate information to stake holders that are not experts in interpreting technical information.

Last time I received a file exported from ArcGIS the exporter was not working properly and required some manual editing to complete the work. Which leads me on to the second reason why 3D printing is underused in many sectors and that is that software vendors have not built coherent export features to enable 3D printing from their software. Too often it is a plugin or an extension that needs to be bought or downloaded. What is needed here is vision and leadership within software companies to get the most out of their software.

A great many of the mature design products like MicroStation and ArcGIS have VRML export capabilities, not to enable colour 3D printing, but because 15 - 20 years ago developers thought that VRML would enable them to create dynamic 3D models on the web. However this does mean that many kinds of 3D software are able to export colour 3D models that with a bit of work can be made in to physical 3D models.

Exporting VRML from ARCGIS requires ArcGIS for Desktop with 3D Analyst extension.

For more information about colour 3D printing visit

1 comment:

  1. A physical model can pass on intricate layers of data in a manner that is simply not conceivable with paper or screen. Significantly a colour 3d print can impart data to stake holders that are not specialists in translating specialized data.

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