What 3D Printing Is:
3D printing, also known as rapid prototyping, is a method of printing layers of material (generally plastic) until the desired shape and volume is reached. This process can create highly complex and fully functional models, such as transmissions, wrenches, aircraft, etc. The primary use is for rapid prototyping parts. You could, for example, 3d print a model airplane for wind tunnel testing, or the plastic shell of an MP3 player. By printing an artists 3d design before sending it for mold tooling, you can be absolutely certain that everything is to spec and fits the way it is supposed to. While this process is relatively inexpensive (a failed mold can cost a company up to $150,000) it is still costly for amateur hobbyists.
Recently, small start-up miniature companies have turned to 3d printing to produce masters. Several of the newer 3d printing machines can achieve levels of detail equal to and sometimes even better than hand sculpted models. Many of the printing resins are also similar to the cast resins, so companies can test model durability and adjust the shape or thickness as needed to prevent problems during the casting process. One of the largest advantages is the ability to reuse the same model multiple times before printing or casting.
Digital models are easily reposed, allowing multiple variations of the same model to be created in minutes. Finally, using a base model, you can create dozens of unique models in the time it takes to sculpt a single model. Digital modeling is also easier to learn and a more widely available skill set than sculpting, making it cost effective and viable for even the most cash-strapped company.
What 3d Printing is Not:
Despite what some people believe, 3d modeling is not going to replace casting. several people have made the argument that the technology will be similar to inkjet printers, and soon be in every home. There are two major flaws to this theory:
1) Not everyone cares about 3d printing. Most people would struggle to find a single use for it and a machine capable of printing a somewhat large (12" x 6" x 6") object would be at least as large as a current all-in-one printer. That's a lot of space on your desk for something you don't use.
2) Material cost.
Consider this: When was the last time you printed a 300 page book on your inkjet? Chances are, you never have. This is because your print would be low quality and literally destroy your print cartridges. A $10 paperback would cost you $40 in ink. Print studios can run a hundred thousand books for less than a dollar per book in order to make a profit.
Casting carries the same theory. Using one spin caster, you can cast about 50 models per minute. It takes about 20 minutes to print the same quantity on a 3d printer, and the material is much more expensive. Also, there are several, similar machines that never quite reached the $30 walmart level. Laser cutters and plasma cutters, and multi-axis CAMs are all still pretty expensive, and not available in your local electronics store. Though several models (and some higher end used machines) are within the price of hobbyists.
Now, that is not to say you won't have a 3d printer sitting on your desk. I fully expect that you can create your own models or download files to print (either free or purchased) someday. However, don't expect them to match the quality of large printers, or that you'll somehow have a cheaper set of miniatures. Producing custom parts adds a nice touch, but it won't be any cheaper than buying a box set!
Another belief is that this will chase out large companies, such as Games Workshop or Privateer Press. This is very unlikely to happen. Not only will their mass casting be cheaper, but attempting to copy ever model will becoming an impossibly daunting task. They currently have hundreds of models. Each model would need to be either 3d scanned (an expensive prospect in itself) or manually copied in a 3d program. Scanning is right out, since it requires expensive hardware in a centralized location. The lawsuit would be swift and brutal.
Even distributed, manually copying each and every model would simply take too long. By the time one model is finished, a new round of models would be released. You would have the option of waiting months for a suitable print file, or you could just buy them.
So, to recap:
- Make low cost masters for molds.
- Try out new ideas before committing.
- Make unique and custom parts.
- Try to print hundreds of miniatures.
- Hold out for $30 home printers.
- Expect game studios to fold.