Envisioning a revitalized Detroit with 3D printing

How a local development firm, a creative agency and the 3D printing company Stratasys used 3D printing to build support for a 50-block makeover of downtown Detroit.

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Ten years ago, Detroit appeared to be a city on its last legs. The city's population was a fraction of what it was at its peak in 1950, and one out of every three office spaces in downtown was vacant.

After undergoing the nation's largest municipal bankruptcy, Detroit is experiencing something of a revival -- but it still has a long way to go. Olympia Entertainment, a business that's called Detroit home since 1927, has joined the effort to rebuild the city with an ambitious plan to revamp a 50-block zone of downtown Detroit. That project recently saw a surge in interest thanks to its partnership with a local design firm, Zoyes Creative Group, and the 3D printing company Stratasys.

What started several years ago as a plan to simply build a new sports arena became by 2014 a plan to build "District Detroit": Olympia's vision for connecting midtown and downtown Detroit with new streets, utilities, landscaping, hotels and residential buildings, commercial space and entertainment venues.

The arena project has served as the catalyst for it all, Tom Wilson, Olympia Entertainment president and CEO, told ZDNet. Once finished later this year, the Little Caesars Arena will serve as home for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons, generating an anticipated $100 million in income for Detroit residents by 2020.

"This is brand new, and it's huge, and it's going to be surrounded by other new structures," he said. "This is a symbol of everything coming."

Olympia turned to Zoyes Creative and Stratasys to help bring its vision to life. The companies collaborated to build large-scale models of the project: An interactive, 10-by-10 foot scale model of the entire 50-block development, as well as a four square-foot scale model of the arena. While large, the models spares no details, including even the 20,000 spectators that will fill the seats of the arena.

The project illustrates the ways 3D printing is helping city planning to evolve, enabling planners to game out architectural and urban challenges, to quickly turn around several iterations of a design and to ultimately win over investors.

In fact, Olympia initially expected it would take about nine months to lease out the new arena's 60 suites, but after showing potential investors the 3D models, they were sold out in 40 days. Moreover, all of the suites were signed under 10-year lease agreements, when Olympia had anticipated selling mostly three-year agreements. And they were leased at a premium price. The 3D models, Wilson said, enabled investors to fully understand the vision for the project.

"It became more real than it would've been under any other technology or graphic representation," he said. "It gave us a credibility and got people excited about the imact this project was going to have on their city."

As 3D printing (or additive manufacturing) gets faster and cheaper, and the range of materials one can work with grows, its usefulness in aerospace, healthcare and the military, among other sectors, should grow as well.

Architectural design has also gravitated toward 3D printing, accounting for nearly 7 percent of the 3D printing market in 2016, according to IDC. Zoyes Creative has used it for its architectural models for about five years now, Rich Rozeboom, Imaging Director of Zoyes Creative, said. The District Detroit project was its first to rely completely on 3D printing.

The project, which otherwise could've taken anywhere from eight months to a year, was completed within a matter of weeks, Rozeboom said. Additionally, working with CAD files allowed multiple designers to work on the project, and it enabled the team to quickly make changes to the design.

"Most clients give us something probably 80 percent designed," Rozeboom said. "As the design moves, we move with them."

More broadly, Rozeboom said that 3D printing is most likely contributing to more innovative designs, both for buildings and cityscapes.

"New building types, landscape types and hardscapes that are ornately designed -- printers can make them much more accurately," he said. "It helps architects visualize what they're putting down."

As additive manufacturing becomes more sophisticated, it's being used not only in the design process but in the construction of buildings themselves. The startup Apis Cor claims to be the first company to have developed a mobile construction 3D printer capable of printing whole buildings completely on site. In February, the company said it built the first house constructed with mobile printing technology in the Moscow region.

In Dubai, the construction firm Cazza Technologies is attempting to take 3D construction even further with plans to build the first-ever 3D printed skyscraper. The company has yet to say when the project will start, but the United Arab Emirates is serious about 3D printed construction. In fact, the government recently launched the Dubai 3D Printing Strategy, an initiative to make Dubai the world's 3D printing hub. By 2025, the government of Dubai says that every new building will be 25 percent 3D printed.

While it's a far cry from the use of 3D printing to illustrate the vision for District Detroit, Olympia's Tom Wilson said the response to the models was nevertheless "amazing to watch." The project's investors, he said, seemed truly motivated to help modernize the city.

"There was a huge civic calling here as a result of being able to see the story," he said.

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