3D Printing, PolyJet Technology, GrabCAD Print

3D Printing A Topographical Map

By Rich Annino on August 13, 2019

The Stratasys J750 is capable of all sorts of amazing things, as we’ve seen recently with our articles involving the application of real-to-life textures and eyewear prototyping. An amazing new application for the Stratasys J series of printers that I’ve been running into quite a bit is the creation of full-color topographical maps that display visual data on top of satellite imagery, similar to how GIS software overlays data onto a two-dimensional map, but with the bonus of being able to quickly display elevation as well! What we’ve found in our initial studies of this application is that these three-dimensional maps are great at displaying data in a way that can’t quickly be understood when looking at a two-dimensional variant, such as census data regarding population density in relation to mountains and valleys. To get a good idea of what goes into this process, we’re going to overlay street data for the area surrounding Boston onto a topographical map of Eastern Massachusetts. 

3D  printed Topographical Map of Boston

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Creating a Map for Printing on the Stratasys J750

Over the past few months, we’ve discussed many techniques for the creation of textures using Adobe Photoshop CC to obtain 3D bump mapping textures as well as applying color. We will use many of those concepts to create our map, so if you haven’t studied up on these techniques yet I’d highly recommend you look first before reading the rest of this article.

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We’ll start by taking our 2D satellite image and postcard that into a 3D rectangular plate. After we have created the 3D shape, we can go back into the diffuse layer, which is our original image, and add town names, a map title, a compass rose and a map scale. One thing to keep in mind when making a map that will have a ton of tiny details on it is that you should always make sure that your image files are at least 300 DPI, and if they are lower, then you will need to increase it (the higher the DPI count, the crisper all printed images will be).

2D satetllite minus overlay

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Once we’ve added all the map data we want, we can then overlay our data, which in this case is our road map information. To ensure that it’s properly aligned we’ll set the transparency of the overlay data layer to around 25%, then move it left to right and scale it appropriately until it’s properly aligned to several features that stand out on the map, such as rivers, coastline, lakes or bridges. Once everything is aligned, you can change the overlay back to 100% opaque, and make sure that the colors that you choose will stand out on the map before moving on to the next step. I used red as it’s a very strong color.

2D Image Layer

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Once you have the map data set, you can create your bump layer by going into the 3D tab, selecting the correct background layer, clicking on the folder icon next to the bump toggle settings in the property tab above and clicking “load texture” using the satellite data. We’re using the satellite data because we want to make sure that everything aligns perfectly, so what I would highly recommend is to have bump map image that is slightly larger than your satellite image to be able to scale and align these two images properly. Once you’ve created the bump layer from the satellite image, go back to the layers tab and double-click on the layer under “bump” in order to open that image and then use the “place embedded” function to add the topographical bump map to the layer. Like with our road data, set the topographical image to 25% transparency and move/scale it until everything aligns properly, then change the transparency back to 100% and delete the satellite layer.

Boston Bump Map Layer

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One final thing to consider is that you can also copy over labels, names and images if you want them to pop out on the map, so as you can see on the topographical bump map layer above, we’ve pulled in much of this data and made it white, black or a shade of gray depending on how far up we want it to appear. In the end, doing so will give us a very interesting effect of raised letters and features, which further sets it apart from a 2D map.

3D Map in PhotoShop

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3D Printing A Topographical Map

All the prep work we just went through is the hard part, as getting your file exported from Photoshop CC with surface detail and importing the VRML file into GrabCAD Print to send to the printer is easy! The VRML file will contain all the color and dimensional data and all you need to do is make sure that you have all five primary printing colors loaded into your machine, showing up in GrabCAD and you can import and send it directly to the printer immediately!

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Map on printer Tray

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Once the part is completed, you will need to spend a few minutes removing the support material from the base of the part and off from any overhanging areas using either the waterjet or hand tools. Within five minutes you’ll have a completed, cleaned map ready to go that shows off whatever geographical area you want to display, along with accurate topographical elevation data, beautiful full-color satellite imagery and relevant map features.

Greater Boston Topographical Map 3D

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3D Printed Topographical map

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In the end, this isn’t an application that everybody needs, but it’s another fantastic example of something that no other 3D printing technology is capable of, and that the Stratasys J750 can accomplish with ease when you play around for a bit in the right software. Whether you’re trying to display elevation in a region, creating a map capable of being read by someone with impaired vision who needs sensory aids via texturing of the map or just want to display your geospatial data in an exciting way for a meeting, using the Stratasys J750 to create vibrant full-color 3D maps is a fantastic solution to an array of fascinating mapping problems!

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