Over the past couple of years, the subject of 3d printing has cropped up more and more often, with a mixture of opinions and attitudes. 3d printing is quite literally what it says on the tin, using a 3d image created using CAD or 3d sculpting software a printer “prints” layers of plastic or resin and basically builds up an object layer by layer. 3d printers have been around for quite a while now and their usage has grown beyond the rapid development of components. The International Space Station actually has a 3d printer on board and is connected to a computer that contains 3d objects of every component within the station, which means if something breaks or becomes faulty the residents can actually print out a new component and perform the fix without having to have a warehouse of spares or request it from Earth.
3d printers do however, suffer from one major flaw. Because the printer breaks the object down into layers, printed curved shapes end up having a stepped effect (think the pyramids). The depth of the step is down to how thin the printer can print a layers. Originally 3d printers would whack down a fairly thick layer (1/4 of a millimetre or similar) and the result would be quite rough. Thankfully this has become better over time, but there is always going to be an issue with layers as that’s inherently how 3d printers actually work. Clearly the 3d printer on the International Space Station is going to have super fine layers, likely at the cost of some million pounds.
3d printers do exist for a couple thousand pounds and as such are technically available for the home market. The quality of these does vary quite considerably and as of the time of writing, I’m not aware of one that can achieve fine enough layers for a 25mm miniature, although flat objects would be fine. There are also companies that offer 3d printing as low as £10 per cubic cm if you provide them with a 3d file to print, the quality again varies but you’re not having to drop a couple of grand on a printer that will likely improve or drop in price in the coming years.
The fact that there are now options available to “home” users opens up a variety of possibilities. You can get 3d CAD/sculpting software for free off the internet that is capable of producing a 3d file to be printed – Sculptris is only 14mb in size and is from the same company that makes ZBrush (which is used by companies such as Games Workshop). Blender is also a popular choice and again free (it’s actually open source). As with most computer based tools you gain the benefit of the undo tool along with saving and tweaking until you’re happy with the result rather than a limited window of when your putty is workable. As you would expect, this has resulted in many people criticising virtual sculpting as being a lesser art or cheating. My own opinion is that it’s just another tool that allows access to another way of creating miniatures.
One of the biggest benefits I believe of a 3d printer is to allow the creation of things that would otherwise be quite difficult. By it’s nature a 3d object can be created so that it complies to specific dimensions or is perfectly symmetrical or repeatable. If you’re creating a little diorama that requires a load of identical lamp posts, maybe 50 of them. You could sit down and create them out of plastic rod or could create something that can be 3d printed 50 times – or maybe 3d print one and then cast it out of resin. Another option might be that you have a half a dozen of Space Marine dreadnoughts in your army and loath the powerplant. You could create a 3d object and print out half a dozen identical ones to replace them all.
Of course the repeatability of 3d printing is both it’s biggest asset and biggest criticism. There is a fear that in time you’ll be able to download a 3d object of any miniature by any manufacturer and then print it out for a fraction of the cost. In fact there is no reason why you couldn’t do that and actually sell that miniature on eBay.
I believe that 3d printers have the potential to radically change certain parts of the miniature hobby. I personally don’t think there is a risk of people printing out whole armies or using 3d printers to sell knock off miniatures, even if the quality were the same, the cost is significantly higher and I can’t see this dropping for some time. Even at £10 per cubic cm, an average miniature is 18 cubic cm – so £180 for that one piece – you’d need to drop that price to a couple of pounds to justify it. Where I think things are going to improve is that it costs nothing to learn 3d sculpting other than spare time. 3d printing, coupled with traditional casting techniques will mean that people will be able to produce bespoke additional components to customise their armies much more easily. Ablative armour for twenty tanks? With your own unique heraldry? No problems. This could actually improve the hobby rather than count against it.