3D Printing and the Hobby: A Skeptical Enthusiasts Take

I’ve been contemplating this for awhile, writing little bits of it in my head for…probably five or six months now, but with the combination of the Tabletop Inquirer posting something about it today, and some 3D printing related controversies coming up in some major hobby groups (and me embarking on a couple large-ish 3D printing projects recently) I thought it was worth posting now.

There’s a lot of talk about how 3D printing is the future of the hobby, how Games Workshop had better get on the STL train or be run over by it, etc.

I’m…politely skeptical. Here’s why.

“The Year of Desktop Linux”

Whenever I hear about 3D printing in the hobby, all of the language immediately gives me flashbacks to how every year since I started paying attention to these things, including back when PC Magazine was a thick, physical magazine I’d read on the bus on the way home from school, that this was The Year of Linux on the Desktop. That glorious moment when we’d all throw off the shackles of our Redmond, WA oppressors and embrace the open source future. The latest version of $THING made Linux so easy that technophobic grandparents can manage it.

…any day now.

The 3D printing community has a lot of the same language in it. The technology is progressing rapidly. It keeps getting cheaper and easier, and if you draw this easy-to-extrapolate line, eventually it intersects with perfection!

The problem with that is that technology is hard to extrapolate. Sometimes if follows nice clean linear or exponential progressions. Sometimes it doesn’t. Consider the timeline for the development of new classes of antibiotics:

In the 1950’s and 1960’s we thought we were hot shit. Bacterial infections were going to be a thing of the past. Reader, they are not a thing of the past.

Now this is not to say I think we’re at some 3D printing peak. I think there’s a lot of room for development and improvement and prices dropping. But it is a note that we are not promised technological advancements – let alone technological advancements at the face and in the direction we desire.

I love my printers, and think it’s a great hobby supplement. But I don’t think it’s a replacement for a box of injection molded plastic models picked up from your local store. Here’s why…

Getting Started

Getting started with 3D printing is rough. I’m working on a series about that, but, well…the Ender 3 requires a fair degree of tinkering. The Prusa Mk3S involves a fairly complex kit build or an extra couple hundred bucks to get it working out of the box. And both of those are FDM printers that are more suited for terrain and utilities than miniatures.

Resin printers, which are what everyone is convinced are going to eat GW’s lunch, are a little easier – most work with just a little setup, and my Epax X1 worked literally out of the box. The problem is that “worked literally out of the box” still involves pouring toxic resin into vats where you absolutely need to wear gloves, cleaning said prints in isopropyl alcohol (IPA) where you really should be wearing a respirator, curing those prints under a UV light, etc. Even when everything is going well you eventually end up with a pile of nitrile gloves (can’t use latex, the resin will get through latex), a jar of IPA that was hazardous waste and is now definitely hazardous waste and…a model.

I’d be hesitant to let my hypothetical 12 year old do that. Maybe your kids are more responsible than I was when I was 12, but that just feels to me like the type of thing that ends in the phrase “mild chemical burn”.

And yes, there are improvements here. “BioResin” is slightly less bad – but not in a practical sense. It’s less stinky, but the correlation between stinky and toxic is a tenuous one at best (cf dog farts vs. carbon monoxide). You still have to wear gloves. You still can’t pour it down the sink when you’re done washing it. It’s just not “Forever Plastic”, just “Really Long Time” plastic. It’s theoretically compostable, but everything I’ve read suggests that, like PLA for FDM printers, that’s in the “In an industrial composter” sense of the word, not “Toss it in the worm bin.” “Water Washable” resin similarly just means you can use water or water-based cleaners like Simple Green to wash the resin before curing. That’s a nice thing, because water is less toxic than IPA, and in the middle of a pandemic easier to get ahold of, but guess what that water is when you’re done with it?

If you said “Hazardous waste” give yourself a pat on the back. It still can’t go down the drain, and you still need to be wearing gloves.

This is the sort of thing where I’m worried about the idea that we are promised technological advancements. There’s no promise that UV curable resins can be rendered nontoxic and nonhazardous. There’s all kinds of chemicals with way more R&D behind them where “This won’t kill you if you breath it” would be a major selling point, but it just can’t be done. I hope I’m wrong, because man would I like to be able to dump my resin residue down the drain, but I’m skeptical.

Cost

This is where Tabletop Inquirer comes in.

The printer they have there is a very expensive printer, in fairness. But thinking about my own printing setup – on the higher end of consumer grade printing but hardly “Price is No Object”, I’ve got…probably about $1700 worth of 3D printing stuff between the FDM printer and the Resin printer and it’s accompanying cure and wash station (review of that coming soon…game changer). The bigger problem is that those came in 1000, 500 and 200 dollar chunks. The bare Anycubic Photon, an entry level resin printer that’s on sale right now is $229.

That’s vastly more than a start collecting box. It’s way harder than say, the Kill Team starter set. It’s way more than most single models. Which means gifting, saving up for a single box, etc. is harder. The barrier to entry is higher. 3D printing is a great thing for established players who want to mess with custom bits, alternative models, exotic terrain, etc.

“First, pick yourself up a resin 3D printer…” is daunting.

And sure, the price of these things is coming down. But it’s also just one of the issues – and my suspicion is we’re not going to see prices drop much more, but rather we’re going to see “premium” features like larger build volumes, mono-screens for faster build times, etc. become more mainstream. You can see this with FDM printers, where things like auto-bed leveling, filament out sensors and other “quality of life” features on higher end printers are getting more mainstream.

But there’s an important second bit to that picture. “…and months of extra work.”

Getting things dialed in – and keeping them dialed in – is work. It takes time. Right now, I’m struggling with resin exposure settings for larger models (don’t worry if those words don’t make sense), and it’s been the better part of a week, and hours worth of work tinkering with settings, setting up prints, cleaning them off, figuring out why they failed, trying again, etc. I’m pretty sure the equivalent model would have arrived by now if I had just ordered it.

Now do I begrudge this time? No – it’s a hobby, and wasting time on overly complex solutions is what hobbies are about. But there is a significant time sink there.

The other cost, I’d argue, is space. 3D printers are big. Below is a picture of my printing station for the resin printer (not shown: the roughly 2L of IPA sitting on the floor) – and this is about as compact as I could make it without risking liquid resin having fun with other hobby materials like paintbrushes. It’s a fair bit of space. It’s space you want to be isolated from…kids and pets and places where people sleep or eat. Places where the odd spill of IPA isn’t a thing, and where you’re not worried about what happens if that bottle of resin keeps slowly leaking from it’s dubiously designed cap (looking at you eSun).

That itself is a luxury. A luxury I didn’t really have until well into my professional life, and then only because I moved out of an urban area where having a room just for hobby nonsense isn’t an insanely expensive proposition. This, again, makes the dream of a 3D printable army squarely in the space of the established, adult, relatively high income gamer. Which…I am. And if it seems like I’m harping a lot on how to get kids and beginners into the game, it’s because I am. In my mind, a lot of the people pushing the idea that 3D printing is going to take over the hobby are thinking about people like them. We need new players coming into the hobby, and that’s one of the things I think GW does very well. A hobby full of greybeards is a dying hobby, even if it’s dying to the sound of UV lasers.

Time

I mentioned time already, but we’re here again. 3D printing is slow. This cannon (little Krieg dude for scale) takes nine hours to print on my resin printer.

Is it fun as hell to watch this machine dip a plate into a vat of literal grey goo and eventually a model comes out? Absolutely yes. Is it fast? No. Even if we assume a wildly optimistic improvement in resin 3D printing speeds to get us to a 0.5 second exposure time (a 20X improvement from what I’m working with now), the mechanics of how the printer works still means it will take 4.5 hours to print.

And that’s just one part. Yes, we’ll likely see printers with bigger build plates enter the consumer space soon (like the Elegoo Saturn), and lets assume the space issue that comes along with it is fine…it’s still not fast. I have most kits finished in the time it takes a resin printed 3D kit to print, even with our ultra-fast scenario. Again, there can be leaps of technology here, but in my experience, the most exciting 3D printing projects I’ve worked on are also ones where patience is a required virtue, and there’s a lot of “Alright, come a week from now I’ll have something cool.” For me, right now, during COVID-19 this is perfect – I’m working a lot, so a hobby that involves 30 minutes of my brain relaxing followed by a machine telling me “Come back tomorrow morning and maybe you’ll have a part done” is perfect. But for a lot of people, I imagine it’s not.

And it definitely precludes the “Warhammer stores will have a 3D printer in them!” concept – even if they had a whole print farm, I can’t see things becoming really viable outside some massive leaps in technology (yes, some of them exist, but there’s no promise that things we seen in a quarter of a million dollar printer the side of a closet will end up in the consumer space…ever).

When Things Go Wrong

Things are gonna go wrong.

This just happens. 3D printers are complicated machines, doing lots of things repetitively and unsupervised, and that, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. And things just do go wrong. They’re a pain to fix – a lot of them for FDM printers involve high heat and delicate wires, and most of the resin ones involve handling the liquid, uncured, and as previously mentioned, toxic resin.

Again, it’s a hobby, so I just sort of sigh and move on. But these errors happen most frequently when you’re new, and can you imagine how discouraging that is? We lost potential members of our hobby to super-glued fingers, models with accidentally stupid looking poses, and feeling bad about paint jobs. Do we really want to add “Your squad fell off the build plate, and now you have to carefully get some lumps of resin off a delicate plastic screen without damaging it, all while your hands are slick with liquid resin. Also now your nose itches.”?

Compounding this, there are components of these machines that are considered consumables – nozzles wear out on FDM printers over time, both the aforementioned delicate plastic sheet and the LCD screen underneath if for my resin printer – and these are again, non-trivial replacements (well, the plastic sheet is pretty easy). They’re not hard, but they are effort and involve fiddling around the inside of the machine, heating things up to “nasty burn” temperature, etc. for parts of the process. It’s trivial for someone who can, say, build their own computer, but there’s a large portion of the population that isn’t inclined toward that, either because they can’t, or because they’d rather be spending their time building models rather than replacing LCD screens.

The bigger problem? All of this sort of falls in the “I dunno, figure it out” category. 3D printer manufacturers, even larger ones with “good” support like Prusa or Lulzbot, lean very heavily on “community support”. Which is to say, very much like a lot of tech companies, you’re relying on the help and support of your fellow users, via Google searches, social media, etc. And the quality of these communities varies – not only between communities, but between questions. The sweet spot is common enough to be an experience a lot of people have had but not so common that people mostly post unhelpful memes and talk about how so many people ask this question. And more than once, I’ve gotten actively contradictory advice. And there’s a tremendous amount of “received wisdom” – people repeating things that they have been told are true as true regardless of whether or not they’ve tested it themselves, etc.

But as an example – at the moment, I’m having trouble getting flat, large pieces (like the breach of that cannon above) to print straight and unwarped. This has involved…days of printing test models, two longish threads on Twitter, a post on a Facebook group, some Googling…

Compare that the GW, where you can, for example, learn how to paint better by doing a demo. Where there is, at least ostensibly, help available. And where there’s a clear gradient of difficulty – push-fit models, contrast, etc. all the way up to…I dunno…an ITC army that’s also bucking for best painted. 3D printers don’t really give you a break because you’re new to this.

All of the above combined is why I joke that the best way to own a 3D printer is to have a friend who owns a 3D printer.

Even If This All Works Out

All of these could, in theory, be worked out. A cheap, reliable, non-toxic, fast resin printer with solid support isn’t like…insane. I could see that being a thing that’s somewhere on the distant horizon.

What concerns me more is what happens if all of this works.

The reason I’m worried about this?

Because nerds are terrible at paying for creative expertise.

Here, we’re going to lean on Tabletop Inquirer again.

lot of commission painters I know get pushback for charging rates that translate to “barely a living wage”. And this is hardly confined to just tabletop wargaming – there was a time when I did some freelancing for RPGs, and a good rate with a reputable company added up to…less per word than I could make proof reading other people’s writing for quality, English idiom, etc. Something that was a lot less work.

I have some theories that the root of this is the thought “Man, I’d love to do ThingIDoForFun for a living”, and discounting the labor of the people who actually do it for a living as a result.

There’s an emphasis on the physical product. You can see this in a lot of complaints about GW’s prices – that’s it’s only 50 cents worth of plastic, and they’re charging $50 for the kit. Then out come words like cash grab.

But you’re not paying for the plastic. You’re paying for the plastic…and a little bit of the Warhammer Community team, and the people who painted the box art, and a small fragment of The Regimental Standard, and the salaries of the rules writers and sculptors, and the small team of people Games Workshop pays to essentially be their IP librarians and act as archivists (an early Vox Cast episode worth listening to). You’re paying for their artistic talent – and the years they spent honing it.

When I quote my consulting rates to…the people who hire me as a consultant…they and I both know they’re not just paying for my thoughts on their project. They’re paying for the expertise that got me there, experience with problems similar to theirs, the adaptability to give them a fast approximate answer or a slower one that’s closer to accurate. They’re paying me for the hours I’ve spent learning how to develop answers, to quickly evaluate the answers of others, and where to look to see if something is already solved.

When a commission painter quotes someone their painting rates – a lot of the time people are under the impression they’re just paying for moving a loaded brush across a model. Not for a better command of color theory than I’ll ever have. Not for years of painting experience, hundreds of test models while they think about schemes. Not for their intuition as to when green and purple should show up as shades, and when we should be dealing with green-grey, brown-grey or blue-grey. When ugly is going to look cool, and when it’s just going to be ugly. Not for a wall of reference photos of rust, grime, heat coloring, verdigris, etc.

We can see this by looking at roleplaying games, which have experienced a pretty heavy shift toward digital products. Gamers still demand high production values – full page, full color artwork scattered throughout, careful and logical page layout, etc. Expensive things, that are expensive whether or not you end up printing a book in paper. What they baulk at is paying anything close to the cost of a proper book for “just” a PDF.

I’m guilty of this too.

This has done a number on that industry. Those bad rates I mentioned? Those haven’t improved in the years between then and now. I know freelancers who have worked on serious projects from major publishers who can’t afford to buy the books they helped write.

Where that concerns me is the intersection between people not valuing creative expertise and the 3D printing community’s culture being – to be polite – one not built around paying for things.

If this doesn’t make sense, hang around a 3D printing Facebook group for like…12 hours.

There’s a hefty and vocal section devoted to directly ripping off GW’s designs. There’s a much larger group that’s simply used to everything being on Thingiverse – and thus free. And even in the circumstances when makers are charging for models, those prices tend to be low (and I do catch myself thinking ‘Really? $10 for an STL?’ even though I know better) and it doesn’t take hanging around in these communities very long before you hear about someone’s stuff being hosted on a pirate site, or being manufactured and sold by someone who doesn’t have the appropriate license to do that.

I think it’s a very dangerous thing to talk about the “inevitability” of Games Workshop having to offer 3D printable models or shifting in that direction entirely without thinking about how we as a hobby value the creative talent of the people behind our favorite franchise. And that a lot of the things that have made the “new GW” so nice – community engagement, painting tutorials, etc. depend on the models commanding a certain price point that, to be blunt, 3D printable files simply don’t right now.

Having those things isn’t inevitable. We have to pay for them. And I’m not convinced we will.

Well You’re No Fun…

I realize this piece has been a bit of a…downer. It’s a response to some stuff I’m seeing online – I’m actually hoping to offset it a bit with some very pro-3D printing content, including some guides to getting started. It’s been on my mind recently and I figured I should just get it out there.

I think 3D printing is an amazing tool for the hobby. Obviously, it’s having a huge impact on how miniatures are designed and produced. I think we’re seeing a lot of creative figures, bits, terrain, etc. being made possible in a way that wouldn’t happen with the costs and demands of physical production – especially from smaller markets or niche areas.

I’m excited for how 3D printing will impact the hobby. But we’ve got a long way to go before it’s something that’s approachable for many in the hobby, let alone “most” or “all” – and while technology is improving, we’re not promised we’re going to get there.

But my bigger concern is that if and when we do, what does that look like. It’s all well and good to say “Well, GW will just have to adapt…” But not all adaptations are ones we necessarily want.

 

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8 Comments


  1. Awesome article. Thank you for convincing me to not ‘just but a 3D printer and get printing models’. I’m going to continue to use my time on the things that actually interest me, and leave the modelling creativity to the awesome commission people and the likes of GW who have built their expertise over time that I’m not really willing to invest.

    Loved your comparison w/ the Linux Desktop, that I spent full days on a couple of decades back, and rarely used due to the same support and ease of use reasons that you cite, and yes, people also ‘pay me’ for my opinions, which I see a little of the reflection that it’s come from decades of honed skills in specialist areas.

    Rich :€)

    Reply

  2. Spot on.

    I’ve got a FDM printer and a resin printer. I’ve printed out several table’s worth of terrain for various games, and about five resin liters’ worth of miniatures on the resin printer.

    I still buy almost all of my models from manufacturers – Primarily due to the time required to print.

    I have a job and a family, and on a good day I get three hours per day to myself. If I want to spend this time on my hobby, I can either choose to sit down and actually paint models – Or I can spend it fiddling around with the Toxic Goo Machine, cleaning models, curing them, polishing off support contact points, etc.

    The result is that I usually do not bother with printing miniatures, unless I want to do something special like a one-off character or a conversion.

    3d Printing is a great addition to the hobby – But the various barriers of entry and the effort required mean it will remain a small but growing niche. And that is not a bad thing.

    Reply

    1. Yeah – it’s a *really* enjoyable side gig, and has awakened what I think is the same sensation of freedom and creativity in me that I think the terrain crafting people get from what they do (and what I’ve never been good at), but I can’t be bothered to try to replace a standard box of troops.

      Reply

  3. I need to keep a link of this post to give to folks who all too often say: Why don’t you get a 3d printer? I’m neither mechanically inclined, nor technically minded and (I also live in a little house with 2 kitties that get into EVERYTHING).

    So yeah, I’ll stick with just buying stuff, be it 3D printed or otherwise.

    Reply

  4. These last two years have really exploded for miniatures available for 3dprinting.
    Without the costs of manufacturing, EVERY idea you have for a miniature can be turned into one—and it is never out of stock!

    Many of my fellow artists are using Patreon to build a following, making their models available to their supporters directly. There is no middleman manufacturer telling you about their thin margins, and being forced to sell all of your rights for $300 (because that is the going “rate”!)

    Of course, now those same manufacturers are jumping into Patreon and dumping work that they bought as work-for-hire and flipping it for a small fortune!—which kind of sucks, when they are competing against the same artists!

    Reply

  5. Great post, and I like how you covered the (many) downsides of 3d printing right now… sure, things will get faster, that library of available STLs only grows, and hopefully resin gets less toxic, but it is a pretty steep learning curve.

    And I say this as someone one who actively designs 3d models that I would love to be able to print out on my own… it only takes about 20 figures printed to beat Shapeways or similar services, but that learning curve (and toxic resin etc etc).

    Reply

  6. I made a similar post on my blog but you went into WAY more detail and it was a pleasure to read. And your comparison to Linux was spot on! From now on, I’m just going to point people to this post.

    I _was_ proud of my off-the-cuff answer to a friend in a gamer group who asked “how much will it cost me to 3d print some miniatures?” I replied, “$500 and a year of your life (to learn the technology).” 🙂

    Reply

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