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3D-printed San Francisco -- the next great tool in city planning

Attention, politicians and real estate developers: a 3D-printed model offers a different take on new buildings, old highway routes, and even sunlight patterns.

A 3D printed model of San Francisco makes it easy for developers, politicians, and others to see how the city is being used. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Picking up the hand-sized skyscraper, O'Brien Chalmers must have felt a little bit like Godzilla.

But Chalmers, the president of Steelblue, a design firm that creates public spaces, wasn't about to squash innocent bystanders. Rather, this was the unveiling of a giant 3D printed model of San Francisco, said to be the largest of its kind, and possibly even the largest 3D printed model of a city ever made.

Presented by Autodesk, a giant maker of digital modeling software and tools, and Steelblue, the 3D printed San Francisco model was built primarily to help the real estate developer Tishman Speyer -- which has giant projects under way all over town -- showcase its many projects, and how they impact this constantly evolving city. But a big physical model of the city, which was produced at a fraction of the cost and time required for more traditional methods, has potential purposes that include everything from politics to demographics to traffic planning.

The model, housed in a dark room in a new South of Market (SOMA) building, is odd to look at. Made in a single off-white resin, it can suddenly burst into color thanks to a projector mounted directly above. A single building can light up, or entire neighborhoods can suddenly be awash in a rainbow of colors, depending on what's being shown. Built at Autodesk's Pier 9 workshop here using two Objet Connex 500 printers, it took just over two months to make -- including the time required to build prototypes, and cost under $20,000 in materials to make, said Autodesk senior product manager Justin Lokitz.

Built to represent San Francisco's downtown and SOMA areas, the model showcases 115 blocks of the city and weighs in at about 150 pounds of 3D printed resin, said Chalmers. Based primarily on city planning documents and architectural drawings, the model is meant to be as realistic as something done at a scale of one to 1,250 can be. But beyond showing the state of the city today, the model also was a glimpse of the future, with many buildings soaring to the sky that won't be completed until 2017.

In fact, as anyone who has spent time in SOMA recently knows, 2017 is a very important date. That's when the Transbay Transit Center, one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the area in years, is expected to be completed. Steelblue is one of the design firms working on that project, and Autodesk's software is also at its core.

To Chalmers, though, a big physical model like this is very much about what-ifs. It's long been possible to look at cities in highly-detailed digital models, but there's something special -- and valuable -- about being able to walk around and touch a physical model. Just as important, it's easy for anyone working with the model to make an instant change -- pluck a block off the table, and replace it with another. For planners and developers, the value of that ability is hard to overstate, Chalmers suggested.

Another vital use is using the model to see how the city is affected by any number of factors. Using a projector mounted on the ceiling, it's possible to bathe it in light that mimics the transit of the sun in order to determine the shadow patterns of new buildings. Similarly, demographic or political maps can be superimposed on it, as can moving traffic patterns, new subway lines, or looks at long-demolished freeway routes.

According to Autodesk's Lokitz, it could have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to hand-craft a physical model at this scale, especially given the high degree of detail. But with 3D printing, a $3.8 billion market this year, according to CNBC, it was possible to do it quickly, and inexpensively, Lokitz said. Though it's hard to quantify the value of the man-hours required to make it -- including a number of prototypes -- the materials cost less than $20,000, he said.