Modeling Topography and Erosion with 3D Printing

by roberthemlich, published

Modeling Topography and Erosion with 3D Printing by roberthemlich Dec 12, 2017

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"Modeling Topography and Erosion with 3D Printing" is a project that will demonstrate the effect of river erosion on the Grand Canyon. This model will act as a visual aid for studying geography and earth science.

The included 3D printable files will allow students to create a scale terrain model of this region and all the accessories needed to simulate a water source.

By using rigid plastic PLA to print the Grand Canyon and water soluble PVA to print a River Valley that fits within, water poured through the river will dissolve the PVA and gradually expose the canyon underneath. During the experiment, participants will observe natural formations that will appear and identify geographic terms to understand how and why these structures come to be.

Feel free to share any images, videos, tips, tricks, or suggestions from your experiment and experience with the project!

Awards, Accolades, and Mentions

  • Pinshape Create to Educate Lesson Plan Contest - 1st Place Winner
  • Pinshape Featured Design - December 1, 2017
  • Make Magazine Blog Article - December 18, 2017
  • Cults 3D Selection - December 2017
  • MatterHackers Minute - Create to Educate Design Challenge Review


Timelapse video here (and embedded at the bottom of the page):

Follow me on Instagram to see more of my cool stuff! :D

This lesson plan is written with an emphasis on the Common Core Science Standards for the state of Michigan. The guide follows classroom goals set by the "Science Course/Credit Requirements" document to engage student interest in STEM subjects.


Print Settings


Prusa i3 MK2S








20% (PLA), 100% (PVA)


The PDF guide includes a detailed print setting chart. The basic goal is to print the Grand Canyon in PLA with thick walls (3 perimeters or 1.2mm, 20% infill), and the River Valley in PVA that is completely solid to allow for proper erosion (100% infill). This will come out to around 60-70 grams of PLA and 30-35 grams of PVA.

Each brand of filament and machine is different, so make sure to use the recommended settings as a starting point and do plenty of tests before printing the final model. I have included the "testPiece_insertPVA.stl" file for small PVA prototype prints.

How I Designed This

The Grand Canyon model was generated using Terrain2STL by Thatcher Chamberlin. I then used Blender 3D to make the custom PVA River Insert and the additional experiment parts.

If you have a dual or multi extrusion 3D printer, like the Ultimaker 3 or the Prusa i3 MK2/3 Multi Material, you can easily combine the PLA and PVA to print them simultaneously. If you do not have one of these, the models can still be printed using a single extruder. As long as your print bed is 160mm or longer, any printer will work.

All of the models have been tested and verified on my Prusa i3 MK2S.



Overview and Background

This project is possible due to the unique properties of PVA filament. PVA is the same material from which glue sticks are made. Most 3D printing hobbyists use this material as a dissolvable support structure for complex models. My concept proposes using it as a functional end product by leveraging the water solubility of PVA to demonstrate a natural process.

PVA has a similar extrusion temperature to PLA (180 - 200 ° C) and is easy to remove from plastic parts, making both materials a perfect match. PVA does absorb moisture from the air, so store the filament and finished 3D printed parts in sealed bags before and after the experiment.

Lesson Plan and Activity

To begin, download the included "Modeling Topography and Erosion with 3D Printing" PDF and STLs. Follow the instructions within the guide, which will take you through all the necessary steps and project information, including:

  • Basics of 3D printing for students
  • Process of obtaining terrain models online
  • Printing the Grand Canyon, PVA River, and accessories
  • Observing the model
  • Documenting findings

Materials Needed

  • PLA Spool(s) (1kg) (Extra colors optional)
  • PVA Spool (0.25kg - 0.75kg) (MatterHackers PVA, Ultimaker PVA, or Polydissolve S1)
  • Soda Bottle (2 Liter)
  • Box Cutter or Drill Bit
  • Phillips Screwdriver
  • Duct Tape
  • Camera and Tripod (Timelapse optional)
  • Sink or Bowl

Skills Learned

  • Geography
  • Topography
  • Erosion
  • 3D Printing
  • 3D Model Generation
  • Observation

Duration of Lesson

1 to 2 Days (3D Printing) and Several Days to 1 Week (Erosion Experiment)


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can that cunt stop shaking her shoulders? its like watching cheap I mean CHEAP porn withoout the naked bits! she is Fucking Moron! learn the camera is not a guy shaking a dollar bill bitch!

This is seriously cool. Have you thought about epoxying the PVA to the model so the small bits don't wander off?

Thanks! Yes, I considered using epoxy, super glue, hot glue, and clear nail polish. The main issue is that the pieces break off and curl because the PVA absorbs the water and starts to shrink towards the end of the experiment. The timelapse I did was over the span of 6 hours with no breaks, so in a classroom where there might only be one bottle poured per day, the PVA will have some time to dry and stabilize.

My next plan is to try out some other brands of PVA and see how they dissolve. I will also do a dual extrusion print in the hopes that printing both materials at the same time will result in better fusing of the materials. I will be sure to post updates when I get a chance to try the experiment again :)

Thanks, I appreciate that!

What a brilliant (and obvious) idea, to use PVA as a educational tool. I'm impressed and right now I really think about getting one of these expensive spools.

Big thanks

Thank you very much! I'm excited to see others try it out and share their results. I'm also interested in seeing how it turns out with different brands of filament. :)