2 dimensions isn't enough!
August 19, 2012 1:59 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking turn a topo/height map into a 3-D model. Where can I cheaply print a one-off 3-D model? I don't want to sink too much money into buying my own printer yet.

I've been thinking about plotting GIS data in 3-D (so not just topo, but using height as a data layer.) I see that 3-D printing is all the rage these days, does the hivemind have any suggestions where I could get something like this printed and at what cost?

Let's say for the purpose of this example that I need two colors, and the final dimensions will be 6" long, 12" wide, up to 12" high. Let's also say that I will provide the 3-D data, all I need is someone to print it.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College to Technology (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Have you checked out Shapeways? The price will depend on the material you choose, but their FAQ indicates that they support models of the size you're talking about. Of course you can hollow it out (with appropriate support structures inside if necessary) to save on cost, since I believe it's billed by print volume.
posted by aaronbeekay at 2:06 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: Ponoko is another possibility, although it looks like their multicolor printing process has a maximum size of 10 x 14 x 8". Single color plastic can go larger.
posted by moonmilk at 2:30 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: As a cheaper alternative to 3D printing, you could make this by cutting a sheet of material to the shape of each contour line, then sticking these on top of each other. The material could be wood, plastic, metal, card, polystyrene, or something else, and could be cut with a jigsaw, scissors/tinsnips, hot-wire cutter, laser cutter, CNC router etc. This technique is particularly suited for larger models.

For example using nautical charts, see Lattitude Kinsale.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:09 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: The technique James Scott-Brown suggests works particularly well with laser cut acrylic. If you add registration holes to the layers you can peg them together with rods, and it's a lot cheaper than 3D printing.
posted by localroger at 3:25 PM on August 19, 2012

Best answer: I've done some projects with laser slicing 3D models and wrote a short laser slicing howto. If you don't care about longevity, using cardboard works really well and cuts much faster than acrylic.

Using a service like shapeways is like living in the future -- 3D models go in and physical objects come back. But they are not cheap; you pay by the cm^3 of actual printed material (not enclosed volume), so as aaronbeekay mentioned, hollow is much cheaper than solid.
posted by autopilot at 5:14 PM on August 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks all for the advice!

I can generate a hollow map. I was specifically thinking of making a county or district proportional in height based on a data layer. As such, it wouldn't be a contour line, it would be more like a set of polygons. This would be rather painstaking to do by hand.

Laser cutting looks quite viable. I can generate hollow shapes, so it might keep the 3D printing cost down. I'll keep thinking!
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 5:26 PM on August 19, 2012

If you can't find a laser cutter you could always mill pieces from stock using a CNC router or mill (the right tool depends on the material you want to use).
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:42 PM on August 19, 2012

Following on to autopilot’s suggestion, you could use that quick and dirty cardboard model with a vacuum form to create a more permanent, smother representation of your data.
posted by migurski at 11:47 PM on August 19, 2012

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