Army Corps of Engineers using 3D printers to create dam models

January 30, 2013

Sacramento District commander Col. Bill Leady shows off a 1/240-scale 3D-printed model of the Folsom Dam auxiliary spillway in Folsom, Calif., during a site visit in May 2012 (credit: Michael J. Nevins)

About 25 miles northeast of Sacramento, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District construction crews are working to complete one of the Corps’ biggest projects — a new spillway at Folsom Dam, designed to help reduce the risk of flooding throughout the Sacramento region.

With an estimated project cost of more than $750 million, it’s important to be able to show and describe how the project will work to government leaders, the public, and project staff.

So four years ago, the Corps decided to use a 3D printer to build a scale model. The 3D printer allows full-scale project components to be shrunk into a handheld model that team members can use to better visualize and conceptualize their work.

The printer uses strands of ABS plastic, material typically used for household drainage pipes, less than a tenth-of-an-inch thick to create perfectly-scaled 3D models in a matter of hours.

“When compared to a 2D drawing or rendering that only shows the outer surface of the project, a 3-D model provides a much better way to help explain what the project is and how all of its pieces will function to a non-technical audience,” said Dave Neff, technical lead for the auxiliary spillway project.

The Corps is also using a 3D printer for a project at Isabella Lake Dam, located 40 miles northeast of Bakersfield. It’s nearly 60 years old and among the Corps’ most at-risk dams. In 2006, the Sacramento District began studying how it could best modernize the dam and reduce the likelihood of dam failure, which would inundate most of Bakersfield and imperil most of its 350,000 residents.

No word on when they plan to 3D-print the actual dams …. which would take a dam big printer — Editor