3D printing is not the future

Has the “3D Printing is the future!!!!” hypetrain died down yet? Because it should have.

I’ve been of the opinion from the start that it wouldn’t take off in any huge fashion and having played around with it for 5 months, I’m absolutely certain.

My Printer

I own a DaVinci Mini by XYZ printing. It’s dropped in price since I bought it in October but at the time it was well reviewed as a printer that produces much better quality than its price tag suggested and was simple and easy to use. The downside was that it wouldn’t match the print quality of a printer three times it price (but would match one twice its price), its filament spools were propriety and cost about twice as much as the standard ones (the cheap printer, expensive ink business model) and it had a relative lack of customisation. All in all it’s a mid level printer that’s cheaper at the start but over time as you use more filament spools it will become more expensive than buying a regular mid level printer.

That’s where I’m coming from.

My latest print

I’m trying to print out the Printable Scenery’s Winterdale Blacksmith. This is the result so far after two days:

This print took 16 hours at medium quality. I could bump the quality up to max but that could easily double the print time. This is just one of 11 pieces that I need to print (admittedly a lot of them aren’t as chunk as this one) for the full building.

I had two failed prints, which failed about 2-3 hours into the print, wasting all the material and time taken that far. 

I’ve not checked how much of the filament I used on this but at an extremely rough guestimate I’d say about 10-15% of a spool. Each spool costs me £25  and given the misprints, I’d certainly say that using the entire spool on just this building is more than probable.

There are some pretty big issues here:

The detail at medium is… not great. From tabletop height at the moment it looks alright, but the second you look closer and oh my god the stepping. Try drybrushing this sucker and those lines are gonna stick out even more.

You can fix prints somewhat by using acetone (not with the type of plastic my printer uses mind) or for this thing polyfilla. It’s just more time and effort put into fixing this.

And you know what? I could just buy the Tabletop Workshop’s Blacksmith instead. It wouldn’t have cost much more than the print + file in the first place, would be much, much better quality, and even if I order directly from the overseas manufacturer would be here quicker than finishing the 3D print.

I’m not knocking the quality of PrintableScenery’s models. The models themselves are fantastic and if you have a 3D printer and wanting to print stuff off like this, they are whole heartedly recommended. Please do so. They are an excellent company and deserve to be supported.

What it’s good for

Little things. Custom accessories. Pieces that can be textured elsewhere.

Here I’ve printed off two wall sections for Kings of War and two arc templates. One with an Orc design and the other with a Dwarf design (the angry santa) for two of my armies.

The templates are more than sufficient quality. They don’t need extraordinary detail but the option to customise them to suit my army is great. I’m currently looking at what else I can make, such as a custom turn counter.

The wall sections were printed out in medium quality but then sprayed with a stone texture spray. This covers up most of the stepping and gives a rough textured appearance that can be painted over. These pieces were also relatively quick at about 30 minutes each to print and didn’t use much plastic at all.

Custom accessory pieces for miniatures and armies would be fantastic. Fully detailed miniatures? No. 

The biggest issue

Accessibility.

The commercials like to pretend that it’s as simple as finding a model you like on a website, clicking “print” and an hour later you have your model! Easy! Anyone can do it!

No. It’s not like that.

Finding decent models in the first place is an exercise in frustration. The most popular site is probably Thingiverse (link takes you to the newest additions, but there’s a search button at the top of the page). There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of models on there that are all free to download.

And most of them are utter shite.

Try and find a decent model, I dare you.

There are commercial sites springing up, like Printable Scenery, who do produce some awesome models. That’s your best bet for decent models and they’re as close to the touted “select a model then press print” ideal as you can get, but that adds to the cost of the print in the first place (not looking so cheap now is it?) and it’s rare they’ll have your ideal model. 

The biggest issue is going to be 3D modelling. To get the best out of a 3D printer, you need to be able to make 3D models on your computer, and that is not an easy task. I spent many teenage years making Half-Life models and levels, and spent a year at university studying 3D modelling. 10 years on and I’ve forgotten most of it and just relearning. Even with my previous experience I still struggle to make a model worth a damn (I’m still determined to relearn just because I’ve got models I want to make an print). 

This isn’t learning how to powerpoint. This more than becoming a master of every single Excel formula. If you think that trying to arrange a picture in word is bad, it’s nothing compared to a bad vertex or face in a complex 3D model.

To get the most out of a 3D printer, you need to be able to handle yourself in a 3D modelling package. That is completely out of the hands of the ordinary or even extraordinary user. Only the utmost power and dedicated users will be able to make such models. This isn’t learning how to type a letter in MS Word, this is learning an entire skill that takes years of practice to get even vaguely proficient at.

I’m not even starting to get onto the subject of misprints, aligning and other wonderful print errors. That’s another whole bunch of NOPE that comes with 3D printing.

The paper printer analogy

“3D printers will get cheaper and faster, and eventually they will be as cheap and as fast as an inkjet printer that’s in everyone’s home.”

I’ve seen this banded about a lot in defence of the current generation of printers, that they’re only in the dot matrix paper printers era. The NEXT generation of 3D printers will be magically wonderful, magically cheaper and even easier to use! They will be in every home!

I think not.

Regardless of the technical ability of the average user to operate a 3D modelling package, what is the purpose of a 3D printer? To print toys? It’s much easier to go to the poundshop and get a carrier bag full of them. I’m not even mentioning the idea of giving 3D printed toys to young children who might put that toxic plastic in their mouths. To print door handles, tools and other useful bits? Forget it – the plastic just isn’t strong enough for any decent application and the models for your specific situation likely don’t exist, forcing you to create the models yourself. To print entire Warhammer armies? Feck no.

At the moment I have the ability to print an entire 200 page rulebook off on my home paper printer. I don’t. The quality isn’t as good as the one I buy in a shop and my god, it takes forever. Even when all’s said and done, you don’t actually save much money. Paying £15 for a softback rulebook is nothing compared to printing 200 sheets of A4, going through god knows how many ink cartridges, and then trying to find some way to bind those pages together.

Paper printers are only as cheap as they are because everyone has a use for them. Everyone sends letters, everyone has to print some bits of paper off every now and again. Everyone needs a paper printer, everyone can write something in Microsoft Word and even then, paper printers are considered one of the fiddliest things there is when it comes to home computing.

The quality of 3D prints is terrible compared to mass produced items, and the cost savings are minimal – especially when you factor in the cost of the printer itself. Home paper printing is never, ever going to beat mass produced books and for the odd print on demand book you want? Well there are businesses that offer those services, and the slight premium you pay for it is much cheaper than trying to do a one-off print yourself.

Anyone thinking that 3D printers are going to become widespread, and therefore as cheap as a paper printer, give me a single example where the average home user would need to regularly print models off. A single useful application of 3D printers.

Closing thoughts

Skimming back over the article, it does seem extremely negative. I don’t regret buying my 3D printer and if you really want to play around with the technology then go for it. If you’ve got no 3D modelling experience, or you’re wanting to print an entire nerdhammer army or terrain set off then I give you a firm “NO DO NOT DO THIS”. 

The technology has a long way to go until it’s mature, but the inherent issue with 3D modelling knowledge means that it will never be widely adopted by home users. Instead it will be a boon for customisation. Custom phone cases for example, not just engraved but full on 3D printed. There will be shops that do that for you so you don’t have to buy a printer yourself.

Heroforge gives you the option of creating custom miniatures for your RPG characters or (in a limited number) for your wargaming armies. I’d like to see Games Workshop offer a service where you can upload a 2D image of your Space Marines chapter logo, and they will 3D print a whole bunch of custom shoulder pads and other accessories with that logo incorporated. There’s a lot of potential for custom one-off miniatures, but they will never, ever beat the cost and quality of mass production.

For large terrain pieces in nerdhammer? Nope. Not gonna happen. I’m back and forth on whether to cut my losses with the Blacksmiths forge. Even forgetting the amount of plastic it uses for each piece, the time taken is horrendous. I don’t want to leave it running overnight or when I’m out if I can avoid it, so I can stop the print if it begins misprinting. I’d hate to think what a 14 hour long misprint would look like, but I suspect it could break the printer altogether.

What I would like to see is smaller terrain accessories. Things that you can use to improve your scratchbuild terrain. Stuff like this (one of the rare gems on Thingiverse). I would kill for a set of windows and doors that I can print out and stick to my foamboard buildings to improve the detail on them. Scratchbuilding detail like that is a pain but it’s one of the things that really adds character to terrain. A quick and easy way of printing out tons of them would be a massive time saver and a good use of 3D printing.

Will my mum ever get and use a 3D printer to its maximum capabilities? Hell no.

8 Comments

    • Im sure there have been and will continue to be advances, but how will the average home user make use of it?

  1. I thought 3D printing was hoing to change the industry butvI notived that the models from Atlantis are not cheap at all and all thecones I wantcto order are never in stock because they cant print them fast enough.

  2. Dear sir,

    You haven’t a clue what you are on about. Taking the cheapest printer you can find, then expecting it to run fast and at high quality ? That is not going to happen any more than you buying a cheap bicicle and subsequently win the Tour de France with it.
    After about a year of experience with printing terrain for 3D printing I can safely say that the results are more than adequate for tabletop terrain, and that with the continuous development of the technology (at a very fast pace), that will only gert better.
    You do have a point cost wise, but even there your asessment is not correct. Printing one of each file is at this point not cost effective, unless you bought into the various kickstarters, like Printable Scenery or Z1 Design’s. Then, and especially where you need multiples of the same parts, it becomes very price competitive.

    I could go on for a while, but it is not my intention to write a new article here.
    However, should you wish to delve deeper into this subject, that is certainly possible.

    To conclude I leave you with this thought :

    You are in a way right. 3D printing therrain is not the future. It is the present.

    PS : On request I will provide you with some pictures of printed and painted terrain pieces. I am pretty convinced you will like them.

  3. Dear sir,

    You haven’t a clue what you are on about. Taking the cheapest printer you can find, then expecting it to run fast and at high quality ? That is not going to happen any more than you buying a cheap bicycle and subsequently win the Tour de France with it.
    After about a year of experience with printing terrain for 3D printing I can safely say that the results are more than adequate for tabletop terrain, and that with the continuous development of the technology (at a very fast pace), that will only get better.
    You do have a point cost wise, but even there your asessment is not correct. Printing one of each file is at this point not cost effective, unless you bought into the various kickstarters, like Printable Scenery or Z1 Design’s. Then, and especially where you need multiples of the same parts, it becomes very price competitive.

    I could go on for a while, but it is not my intention to write a new article here.
    However, should you wish to delve deeper into this subject, that is certainly possible.

    To conclude I leave you with this thought :

    You are in a way right. 3D printing therrain is not the future. It is the present.

    PS : On request I will provide you with some pictures of printed and painted terrain pieces. I am pretty convinced you will like them.

    • I’ve seen the results from mid-high end printers and they’re similar in quality and build speed to mine.

      I’ve seen the prints from £1k+ printers and agree they’re fairly impressive but still not up to the standards of traditional prodution methods. They also still take multiple days to print.

      Can you answer the question I laid out in the article? What use is this technology to the average home user that isnt better served by just buying cheap tat from the poundshop instead?

  4. Printed on a $299 (currently available for pre-order at $349) Kickstarter printer (Trinus):
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Castle%20gate%20finished.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Tavern1.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Tavern2.jpg

    Printed on a $600 printer (Afinibot A9/Creality CR-8) – although I’m sure it can be found cheaper elsewhere:
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Observatory-Wizard.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Observatory-Steampunk.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Observatory1.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Heros-Hoard1.jpg
    http://www.gentlegiantdk.com/images/Figurer/Heros-Hoard2.jpg

    Frankly, it sounds like you’ve bought a crappy printer and/or not bothered to tweak and upgrade it (plenty of places where you can find information on how to do that). The propriatory filament should be a no-no to anyone who has done even rudimentary research.

    Oh, as for Thingiverse and “bad models” – do a search for openforge and openlock.
    Let me give you a few examples:
    http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:922445
    http://www.thingiverse.com/devonjones/designs
    http://www.thingiverse.com/Curufin/designs
    http://www.thingiverse.com/aaskedall/designs
    http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1908461
    http://www.thingiverse.com/dutchmogul/designs

    I really hope you don’t give up on 3D printed terrain, even larger models. 🙂
    You simply can’t buy finished products of this scale and intricacies for a reasonable price.

    • I’ve seen prints on higher quality printers. The pure quality is not why I wrote the article.

      Please can you tell me what use a 3d printer is to the average home user please?

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