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Autodesk Just Created the World's Biggest 3D-Printed City Model

We want to live there! Oh wait, we do.

The model covers an area of 115-plus blocks encompassing the Financial District and SoMa.

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Two Objet Connex 500 printers created the model with a resolution of 16 microns.

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The 3D model with the Transbay Redevelopment Area highlighted.

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A closeup of the SoMa skyline, circa 2017.

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An example of the model's animation capabilities.

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“Why’d we do it? Because we thought it was cool.”

Justin Lokitz, senior product manager at Autodesk, stands at the head of a large, waist-high table overlaid with a 1:1250 scale model of San Francisco’s Downtown, SoMa, and Mission Bay. Commanding attention on the table is the nearly foot-high model of the future SalesForce tower, along with a Godzilla doll and hundreds of lights, moving along the city streets—animated traffic running among fictional monsters and structural monsters soon-to-be. I look up and see a projector shining down on the city. It illuminates the model in such a way as to make the plastic resin itself seem alive.

“The marriage between physical and digital will get smarter,” says O’Brien Chalmers, president of visual design firm SteelBlue, as he overlooks his model city, iPad in hand. On the screen is the digital analogue to the physical model. He presses his finger to the corner of Howard and 1st Street, where the exhibition is being held (in real life), and a red laser shines down on the model, pinpointing our physical location in miniature via iPad projection. As he slides his finger across the screen, the laser pans over the miniature city like an alien tractor beam.

Another flit across the iPad and the city explodes into an array of color. Red, orange, and yellow splotches—a heat map. Yet another swipe from Chalmers and the city resumes its natural tannish hue, only with the alarming red contour of the old, demolished Embarcadero Freeway running across the Transbay Redevelopment Area—the red tape of our torn-down past over plastic representations of buildings yet to be built. If the room we were standing in weren't draped off with black curtains, we could almost see construction of the behemoth Transbay Transit Center, a few blocks away.

As far as we know, this is the biggest 3D-printed model of San Francisco ever created, and it is certainly the most high-tech. Built in Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop in a partnership with SteelBlue, it took a team of three designers a mere two months of 3D designing and printing to build the model (Although gathering the dimensions of city buildings took years). It was built for the Tishman Speyer real estate firm, but Chalmers envisions the technology’s broader use in the realms of architectural design and city planning. And, like anything tech, progress for its own sake will only reveal further uses as time goes on.

“In the future we might have clear models implanted with RFID chips and LCD screens. You could pick up an individual building, place it somewhere in the model city, and see how it would affect the traffic flow.” It seems like the stuff of supervillainy, these large 3D models sitting on conference tables in darkened rooms. And, depending on your views on San Francisco's skyline, perhaps it is. 


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