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

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

3D printed model for Harrison Sutton Partnership

Totnes architects, Harrison Sutton Partnership commissioned a 3D printed model for the Vinery project in Devon. The two buildings that nestle in the steeply sloping site were to be removable. 

Re-using their design development SketchUp model, Lee 3D prepared and optimised the file for 3D printing using Magics RP. A scale of 1:200 was chosen balancing cost with clarity of features. Consideration was given to ensuring the removable buildings were a good fit with the site model. The model was 3D printed on the ZPrinter 650 as a monochrome model. 

The model is shown below in various states showing the buildings and base part. 

For more information about Harrison Sutton Partnership visit

For More information about 3D Printing with Lee 3D visit

Sunday, 21 July 2013

In what way is 3D printing cost effective for architects?

Recently while making a CPD presentation to a medium sized architectural practice in London, I posted a slide listing the strengths of the 3D print technology we use at Lee 3D. The strengths named were speed, aesthetic quality, colour and cost effectiveness. One of the architects asked what I meant by "cost effective" and in this blog post I will try to answer that question more fully.

Of course the ZPrinter technology we use is comparatively less costly to run than many competitor technologies but this is not the whole story, it begs the question: 

Why 3D print a model in the first place?

To get to the bottom of this we first need to ask what 3D printing is useful for in architecture. 3D printers may one day be used to print buildings directly, as being researched at Loughborough University and D-Shape, but at the current time 3D printing is primarily used as a communication tool in the design process. Typically this involves 3D printing models for communication purposes.

Single colour concept model showing design geometry

3D printing allows a direct output from a 3D software model into physical form. So the first argument for cost effectiveness of 3D printing might be that 3D printing integrates with the computerised design process that most architects use today. 3D printing allows the reuse of design data and with the increased use of 3D design data with the inexorable move to BIM, new opportunities for reusing this data are constantly unfolding.

But still we need to explore the reason why bother to make the 3D print in the first place. What is the pay off?

As a communication tool a physical model has the ability to express geometry to an audience in a way that is simply not possible on paper or screen. When a model is placed on a table in a meeting the facts of the design geometry are immediately clear for all to see. 

Single colour concept model showing design geometry detail

We all know that architects are trained to read architectural drawings and images, however it is also a fact that not all clients and stakeholders are equally able to do this. A physical model democratises the communication of design geometry.

In certain practices and for certain projects, 3D printing is used extensively for internal review of design geometry. A physical model as part of a presentation saves time in understanding form.  If a form is complex it may be the only way to really understand it. 

Each media and technique has the ability to communicate different kinds of information. A good visualisation superimposed on a photograph of the site can give an impression of what a design will feel like in a way that a 3D print probably cannot. 3D printing is great at clearly expressing the actual physical geometry of the design, accurately, to scale and direct from the design workflow.

3D printing serves a purpose in communicating designs, especially at early stage when a traditionally made model may convey too much information and cost too much. 

And here's the crunch, with 3D printing most effective in the early stages of designing, it can be used to influence decisions. A 3D print can help win work. 3D prints at a very early stage communicate ideas to a client in a clear and powerful way.

So in what way is 3D printing cost effective for architects? 

     3D printing:

  1. Allows reuse of 3D software models.
  2. Clearly communicates design geometry to clients and other stakeholders.
  3. Saves time in understanding form.
  4. Helps win work.

To find out more about 3D printing for building design visit:

Monday, 1 July 2013

3D Printing Architectural Context Models

The availability in the UK of 3D city models from ZMapping and other suppliers has enabled the production of accurate, detailed 3D printed context models. At Lee 3D, I made some samples to look at different colouring effects that can be achieved.

How you choose to present a context model will depend on house styles and the purpose of the model. Some customers prefer not to see all of the clutter on top of each building while for others the parapets, chimneys and dormas help to express the texture of the city. A context model for a residential model for marketing purposes may need to be softer in tone than one featuring a multi-storey office building.

Tile 01
This 1:1000 sample was printed white but with grey roads. It also shows the site area that has been recessed to 9mm to enable 2 or 3 floors of basement to be represented on the removable plug.

Tile 02
In contrast this sample has buildings printed in light grey, roads a darker grey and the to ground a light brown and green to represent a grassed area. The result is a much softer effect than Tile 01 where the contrast between grey and white is more strident.

Tile 03
The neutral uncoloured model can allow the proposed building to stand out. Trees are printed as symbolically and roads are recessed very slightly to give an indication of their presence with out crying out for attention.

Tile 04
In this sample an aerial photograph has been projected onto the topography. This technique is probably least effective in an urban model with high buildings as building tops can loom over pavements depending on the angle of the photograph. However in more rural models with less geometric interest the aerial image comes into its own.


Colour can be used to as a tool to communicate zoning and indeed some of the most effective 3D printed context models are waterfront models where the water is coloured blue and the land is left a neutral white. Attempting to apply real colours and textures at a scale of 1:500 or smaller can lead to a muddy effect. It is usually better to work with a limited palette of flat colours.

Size is very much going to be determined by the purpose of the model being made. A context model where sensitive areas of historical interest are concerned may require a larger tiled model to convince a planning team of the merits of a proposal, whereas a speculative model designed to win the interest of a prospective client may just need surrounding streets to give the proposal some sense of proportion. (At Lee 3D our maximum tile size is 380 x 250mm.)

Scale is often determined by the function of the model. Data in this format can be successfully printed down to scales of 1:5000. A model at this tiny scale may need to be made to give assurances that sightlines to a distant landmark will not be affected. If the purpose of the model is to create a removable plug that represents the site/proposed design then the detail required will have an effect on the chosen scale. Scales of 1:1000 and 1:500 are typical for this kind of model.

Image showing Tile 01 with model makers trees and insert building added. 

Dressing models with model makers trees adds a final level of environmental detail. Larger trees do not 3D print well at 1:500 and larger scales. Adding model makers trees does add quite a bit of time to the process of 3D printing a context model but if time allows it is probably worth it.

Insert models could well do with an entire blog article of their own so I will not attempt to cover this here.

Aldwych 3D printed from ZMapping data at Lee 3D

For more information about ZMapping data visit

For more information about 3D printing at Lee 3D visit