Civic leaders hailed the Ford Motor Co. in 2018 when it announced plans to renovate and re-occupy the old Michigan Central passenger train depot on the west side of Detroit.
During the previous decade, the station had become a famous urban ruin and a symbol of the City of Detroit’s precipitous economic decline from the glory years during and after World War II when the station’s grand waiting room with its tiled ceiling was the center countless arrivals and departures.
By the time Ford purchased the building, the old depot had been completely vandalized during the years it had stood vacant and open to the weather during the harsh Michigan winters. Since then, the company’s plans to make it the hub for its development of autonomous vehicles and a new mobility innovation district have run into a few snags.
Those challenges include the company’s financial difficulties to the COVID-19 pandemic which has emptied Ford’s offices spaces further west in Dearborn. The restoration has also run into some issues related to the building itself.
Plans called for the building to be restored, for the most part, to its former glory, but time has taken its toll and some of the parts of the century-old building are unrecognizable. However, the automaker that plans to use the site to develop future tech is using current tech to move the project along.
The renovation of the station, which is now supposed to be finished in 2022, has brought to bear some of Ford’s technical skills, such as 3-D scanning, on the building and its lost history and missing pieces. Ford is using hand-held laser scanners recreate some of the station’s original architectural elements as the restoration moves into rebuilding the inside of the station.
“Many pieces of these intricate features no longer exist, and we don’t have drawings of them because they’re so old,” said Rich Bardelli, Ford’s construction manager for the Michigan Central development project.
“To ensure the historical accuracy we need the right level of detail. This technology allows us to scan what’s left to get a full digital picture of what it used to look like. Then we can 3D print them in the material that would get put up; like a plastic or synthetic material or even print them as molds or casts for plaster or iron,” he said.
To help with the scanning, Ford called in engineers from one the company’s suppliers of 3D printing software and hardware, Computer Aided Technology. The engineers from Chicago-based CATI spent several days this past summer scanning architectural pieces at Michigan Central Station and at Ford’s Advanced Manufacturing Center in suburban Detroit.
After completing the scans, CATI delivered more than 20 digital files of missing or damaged pieces that will be rebuilt for installation during the reconstruction of the station.
The scanner makes 15 cross sections of a physical object, measuring the fine details to generate digital mesh files. The technology makes the restoration project more precise, which enables developers to take measurements that might have been impossible to obtain any other way.
Ted Ryan, Ford archivist and heritage brand manager, says that 3D printing is becoming increasingly popular in historic restorations. “If we can use 3D printing to help us build cars, we can use it to help us restore the train station,” he said.
The restoration is expected to create not only office space but also retail space, turning it into an anchor for more development throughout Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and connect it to an ambitious park that’s being planned for Detroit Riverfront.