Introduction: Create a Site Toporaphic Model Using a Laser Cutter

Often times when faced with to present complex technical information depicted in the form of drawings, it is difficult for those who are unfamiliar or without any background training to comprehend the information presented such as topography. By creating objects a model, that replicate real world objects it is easy for anyone to understand contour data, including potential clients that need to be convinced and sold your design.

By using the following computer based software:

• Arcmap (only necessary if contour drawing is not giverN0
• Rhino 3d (to create cut file)
• Adobe Illustrator (to send to laser cutter

By using software programs are ones that one is most likely familiar with, along with the following steps it is easy to create a model.

1. Gather data may be given or use arcmap (1.5hrs if needed)
2. Convert data into cut file (2.5 hrs)
3. Cut model on laser cutter (1.5 hrs)
4. Assemble model (1.5 hrs)

7 hours is the total time needed to create model (based on a 18” x 24” model with approximately 30 layers)

Step 1: Gathering Surface Data

Using arcmap to find contour data

Note: If you already have your contour drawing from another source you can move on to step 2

Surface data can be gathered from a number of sources available to the general public. The easiest type of data to work with is in the form of contour data, were individual lines represent various breaks in the surface topography, creating essentially a series of steps, depicting formation.

Typically when locating data for a site within the state of Iowa, it is available as a GIS file, which can then be opened in any software such as arcmap or a similar software package. Once you have loaded the data for the correct site you can then export the data into a autocad file that can then be used to begin assigning elevations to the data to create a 3 dimensional depiction.

1. Find and load data into arcmap, using gis files.
2. Clip data to necessary limits (located in spatial analysis toolbox)
3. Export data to cad (dwg file)

Hint: Most states have the data available for the "Department of Natural Resources"

Step 2: Preparing Cut File by Creating the Model's Wireframe

Once you have imported that data into another cad based that you are comfortable to work in a three dimensional platform, you can begin to move each contour to the to the correct elevation relative to the other contours. This will create a wireframe view of the model that you will fabricate. Once each contour is at the correct elevation you can also add a bounding box that will start and end at the contour line, running around the perimeter of the model.

These guides that are placed around the perimeter of the model as shown in the illustration will act to define the cutting edge of the model so each layer can easily be fabricated.


1. Select first level contours, then using move command move to correct elevation. For example if you select the 800' contour move to 800'.

2. Draw one bounding depending on the size of the model and copy to all layers.

3. Export each layer to be cut as into a illustrator file.

Hint: the number of illustrator files you will have depends on the amount of layers in you model. If your model will have 35 layers, then you will have 35 illustrator files.

Step 3: Laser Cutter Preperation

By using the Adobe illustrator files you have prepared earlier during the last step, you can begin to load each file onto the computer you will be laser cutting from.


1. Locate the necessary quantity of materials necessary.
2. Open the first file that you wish to cut.

Step 4: Laser Cut Model Pieces

Before beginning to cut the first layer you must familiarize yourself with the laser cutter you will be using. To ensure that you can effectively operate the cutter you can practice cutting random shapes.

Preparation: Cut each layer of material to correct size, for laser cutting before beginning steps

Danger: The material in the laser cutter may catch on fire if operated improperly.

1. Follow the instructions of the laser cutter that you are using
2. Check each layer in sequence for the bottom to the top.
Hint: Check for errors by assembling the model in process rather than till you are finished cutting

Step 5: Assembly

The final process is to glue the model’s layers together.

Hint: Elmer’s glue will be most effective

1. Apply glue to bottom layer
2. Press against previous layer

Congratulations, you have just create a topographic model that accurately depicts a real world site. By using the skills that you have just leaned you can build basic models for computer files.


fischergmf made it!(author)2015-02-08

What is the material that you are using? It looks like a cardboard of some time.

lordhazzard made it!(author)2011-11-01

This could totally be used for minecraft!

nanosec12 made it!(author)2011-10-28

jealous i am of your laser cutter, or that you have access to one at all, would that I had as much

WolfKodi made it!(author)2011-10-27

Wow, you must have a pretty awesome laser cutter to get this going.

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