Engineering Inside:

2015 Issue 2
3D Printing

Print a 3D Map

May 2015

by Robin Hegg


topographic map with contour lines

The process of 3D printing starts with taking a model of a three dimensional object and breaking it down into layers. These layers are what the 3D printer will use as a guide when laying down the material to build the object. Topography, or the study of surface shape, works much the same way. Surveyors or satellites and sonar will measure an area’s size and shape at different vertical points. To record the topography of an area on a map, these layers are recorded with lines called “contour lines” marking the height of the landscape’s features at different set points. For example, a map of a mountain might show the area of land at 100 meters, the area of land at 200 meters, at 300 meters, and so on, thus giving the reader a more detailed sense of the three-dimensional space represented on the two-dimensional map.

In this activity, you will use the same method used by slicing software in 3D printing to break an object of your choosing into layers. With the data you collect about each layer, you will “print” a topographical map-style model of the object, laying down layer by layer of material, just like a 3D printer. You will be “printing” a three-dimensional topographical map.


foam board, corrugated cardboard or balsa wood, ruler, pipe cleaners, pen or pencil, craft knife (with adult supervision) or scissors



3D Topographic Map

1. Select an object in your house. It can be a relatively simple shape, like a bowl or a cup, or something more complex.

2. Use your ruler to measure the thickness of the layering material you are using (foam board, corrugated cardboard, or balsa wood). This will be the increment of height you are working with.

3. At the height of the first layer, use your pipe cleaners to wrap around the object, giving you the horizontal size and shape of that layer.

4. Next, place the pipe cleaner shape on your layering material and use your knife or scissors to cut out the shape.

5. Continue to do this for each layer, calculating the height of the layer, forming the size and shape of the layer with pipe cleaners, and cutting out your layer.

6. Once you’ve created all your layers, “print” your object by gluing the layers together one-by-one in the correct order. You now have a “3D printed” model and a topographical map of your original object.


1. Does your “map” look like your object? Why do you think it does or does not?

2. What does this let you know about the level of detail given on a topographical map?

3. In what ways is a .STL file for a 3D printer similar to a topographical representation of a three-dimensional area?

4. How do you think thickness of the layers you created here compare to the layers created for a 3D printer?

5. If you chose an object with a more complicated shape, what challenges did you run into?  What other tools might have helped you make your measurements and construct your layers? What tools do you think topographical surveyors use?

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