Is It Worth Printing Your Own Miniatures?
  • Is It Worth Printing Your Own Miniatures?


    We previously discussed the "digital line" when a physical product's value online dips to below one U.S. dollar in value, but miniatures are a bit more complicated. 3D printers continue to come down in price, but how cheap do they need to be before the miniature and terrain market is impacted?


    3D-ownside

    3D printing is as much art as science. 3D printers aren't cheap, with pricing range from $200 to over a $1,000 and a wide variety of printing capabilities. 3D printing also requires a level of technical proficiency that varies with the printer. 3D printers work with a combination of heating and cooling to create plastic molds, which means temperature and smell are considerations.

    In addition to the printer itself, 3D printers require their own specialized form of ink, known as "filament." Filament costs begin at $20 on the low end and comes in a wide variety of colors and materials.

    3D prints do not all come out perfectly. The size of the printer can limit the size of the raw print. There are tricks to get around these size limitations, by digitally splitting an object and gluing the printed pieces together later, or by rotating the object so it prints flat. Given that 3D printers create models in layers, the level of detail can also be affected by the orientation of the final product on the print bed.

    Heat and cold affect how the printer produces a print. Heat can create warping of the final product, or the print can not stick to the bed, or the final product can be stringy or melted. Because 3D models are printed from the bottom up, any protrusions may require supports which must be trimmed later, in much the same way flash is trimmed from metal molds.

    Printing miniatures also takes time. Printing times can range from a half hour to days. Multiple miniatures multiply the time to print, and also multiplies the risk of a print going wrong. High end 3D printers have digital cameras to check in on a print for this purpose.

    With all these challenges it's easy to see why 3D printing is not for the faint of heart. And yet, there are some real advantages to using a 3D printer.

    The Upside

    One of the most significant advantages of 3D printing is the ability to produce exactly what you want. It is entirely feasible, with enough time and preparation, to produce a small group of miniatures ahead of a game, with the exact specifications you need -- say, five goblins, two worgs, and a hobgoblin captain.

    Most print outs are scaleable, depending on the quality of the digital sculpt. This means a medium-sized lizard humanoid could be sized down to kobold proportions or up to a hulking lizard-like giant with just a few tweaks of the printing software.

    Rare or even copyrighted sculpts are available on Thingiverse for personal use, so just about any character from pop culture can be produced on demand.

    Despite these advantages, the 3D printing market hasn't yet affected the miniature and terrain market yet. But as printers get cheaper and easier to use, the likelihood of an impact seems likely. Just how cheap do they need to be?

    Meet the Competition

    The Dremel Idea Builder currently retails for about $600. According to the graphic provided by Dremel (above), a $26 Dremel Idea Builder 0.5kg spool can print 36 small models (a medium-sized creature in D&D), 14 medium models (a large creature), or 3 large models (a huge creature). Assuming no errors, that's $0.72 per medium-size figure, $1.86 per large figure, and $8.67 per huge figure. Rarity and randomization aren't factors when printing your own models, so the time to print (1 hour or less for medium-size figures, 2+ hours for large figures, and 4+ hours for huge figures) is offset by getting the miniature you want and printing as many as you need.

    By comparison, Reaper miniatures made of Bonesium (a flexible form of paintable plastic) retail for $2 ($1.28 more over 3D) for medium/small-sized creatures, $5 for large creatures ($3.14 more over 3d), and $10 for huge creatures ($1.33 more over 3D). For the Dremel prints to be a threat, it would have to pay itself back in savings -- it would take 734 medium/small-size miniatures to recoup the cost of the printer and filament. That's not taking into account that the model must be prepped, which requires scrubbing off supports, hairs, and any other "flash" from printing and the possibility of a printing error.

    This is just one estimate of course. The amount of filament is dictated by a variety of factors, including "infill" which determines how tightly-spaced the filament is placed within a print. The smaller the infill the more detailed and solid the print becomes -- printing a coat rack will require more filament than printing a miniature.

    Depending on the level of detailed required by the miniature, the price/print ratio changes significantly. Chess pieces, for example, have much less detail, but that lack of detail means more can be printed. Makerbot estimates you can print 392 chess pieces or 12 full chess sets on a 1kg spool, or 196 pieces for a 0.5kg spool.

    If we consider a typical chess set to consist of 16 small-sized miniatures (pawns) and 16 medium-sized pieces, a 0.5kg set can produce 96 small and 96 medium miniatures, or 192 miniatures in total at $0.14 per mini for "small" prints (as per the Dremel photo above). At $1.86 savings per mini, the rougher minis are much more economical -- it cuts the number of minis to make back the value of the printer with 337 prints, including the cost of one 0.5kg spool.

    Terrain is a different story. Dwarven Forge's unpainted terrain made of Dwarvenite (a strong, color-infused compound) costs $55 for 34 pieces sized to what we consider a medium print by Dremel (or a large D&D monster), or $1.62 per model. In comparison to miniatures, the $1.86 per large model isn't a huge savings. Unlike miniatures, terrain is often required in bulk with specific requirements for a room -- a 3D printer gives you considerably more flexibility to print exactly the room you want. And printing terrain, which is often blocky and rough, doesn't require nearly the level of precision as a character figure might. While a game master might not normally print 350 small/medium-sized miniatures, it's entirely feasible she might print hundreds of terrain tiles.

    Are We There Yet?

    3D printers aren't currently a threat to the miniature market. The level of detail is still below what Reaper produces, and certainly not as paintable as metal sculpts. But as the quality of printers increases, they are certainly on the path to stealing market share. For non-player characters, minis that need to only roughly represent miniatures (think meeples), and monsters that don't require a lot of detail, a 3D printer could easily make up the cost difference with enough prints.

    Terrain is considerably more of a threat. Fat Dragon Games, a company that originally made papercraft models, launched Dragonlock 3D sculpts through DriveThruRPG. This is the kind of collaboration that will begin to threaten Dwarven Forge's business model.

    3D printers are still highly technical machines that require no small amount of maintenance. My Dremel IdeaBuilder is largely plug-and-play, but the price point is out of the reach of most consumers (I got a review copy). When the price of a convenient, all-in-one printer comes down to under $200, print quality goes up, and filament becomes cheaper, the miniature and terrain industry will inevitably be affected. How much and how quickly is the question:

    According to the new Smithers Pira report The Future of Global 3D printing to 2027 this market is set for explosive growth over the next decade. It will rise from $5.8 billion in 2016 to $55.8 billion by 2027, an aggressive annual growth rate of 23.0%. The 3D printing market is beginning to transition into a maturing business environment and has earnt an important position as a design and prototyping tool, and in the production of complex tooling and moulds. The market continues to experience substantial success among hobbyists and home users, dominating the number of 3D printers delivered in 2016 (233,000 printers versus 63,000 units in industrial/commercial applications), and in the total number of 3D printers installed.

    How soon will 3D printers disrupt the hobby market? Sooner than you might think.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 38 Comments
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      I don't need to buy a photocopier machine if I can go to a copy shop (they are usual in cities with universities).

      I guess in the future the videogames with creator of characters will add software for the option of making a miniature with a 3D printer.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Quote Originally Posted by LuisCarlos17f View Post
      I don't need to buy a photocopier machine if I can go to a copy shop (they are usual in cities with universities).

      I guess in the future the videogames with creator of characters will add software for the option of making a miniature with a 3D printer.
      Ah, but you already know how to use a photocopier - position the original, press the button and voila. 3D printers are nowhere near that straightforward yet.

      Count me as one who is very interested in getting into 3D printing - trying to learn and research for a purchase by the end of this year.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I convinced an acquaintance to run some "Introduction to 3-D Printing for Tabletop Games" workshops at Gen Con this year. Three sessions filled up in 30 minutes, so the interest is out there. He may end up adding two more sessions if they can find the space.
    1. Jacob Lewis's Avatar
      Jacob Lewis -
      Board games are popular again, and they're bigger and more complex than ever. Custom inserts are in demand to keep sets organized and neat, especially those with lots of expansions. I think a 3-D printer could be very useful in this considering the low level of detail needed to create custom trays for storing components.
    1. pogre's Avatar
      pogre -
      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post

      Terrain is a different story. Dwarven Forge's unpainted terrain made of Dwarvenite (a strong, color-infused compound) costs $55 for 34 pieces sized to what we consider a medium print by Dremel (or a large D&D monster), or $1.62 per model.
      I agree about Dwarven Forge's unpainted pieces. However, I think DF's huge advantage is their pre-painted selection. Generally speaking, people heavily into DF have more disposable income than time. For me, painting terrain is mostly boring and time consuming. I would rather be painting miniatures.

      The terrain company I could see really getting hurt by 3d printing in the nearish future is Hirst Arts.
    1. Kurt Covert's Avatar
      Kurt Covert -
      Speaking as someone who has spent the money on a printer, and put the time in to "dial it in". It is absolutely worth it. I've saved a lot of money by printing rather than buying. But 3d printing isn't an easy hobby at first. A lot of time and frustration goes in to getting that perfect first layer.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      If I buy a mini from Reaper or anyone, part of what I am paying is also the form. there are a lot of really nice models out there by various sculptors. Let's say I'm not willing to pirate copies of work done for model companies but only use work put up by those who can.

      First, are these free or are you also paying for the model? If so that cost needs to be included, especially when part of the allure of a 3D printer is being able to print "just what you need". If the model for a PC that you'll print once costs $5, that's a hefty cost on top of materials. If you might need 2-3 of a particular style dragon, it's at least split up a few ways but still could be a big component. Even where you might want a bunch of orcs or whatever, you still might want more then a single model, maybe 4 models for 20 orcs.

      Second, how does the top quality compare to mini manufacturer? (And the selection, but that'll just increase over time.)

      Third, how does the materials stack up vs. pre-made minis. Going back to the Reaper I know how the paint sticks (slightly hydrophyllic but no need for primer), that the minis themselves can take normal transport and wear and tear well.

      This isn't saying 3D printing isn't good - it's saying there's a lot more information I'd love to have to better compare.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jacob Lewis View Post
      Board games are popular again, and they're bigger and more complex than ever. Custom inserts are in demand to keep sets organized and neat, especially those with lots of expansions. I think a 3-D printer could be very useful in this considering the low level of detail needed to create custom trays for storing components.

      I have seen many models which are for exactly this use - organizing the box o stuff which came with that board game. And one selling point is that these printers can make boxes and such with extremely thin walls from fairly tough plastic to maximize fitting into the overall cardboard box.

      And some are just fun!
      https://www.thingiverse.com/thing:2687193
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      I convinced an acquaintance to run some "Introduction to 3-D Printing for Tabletop Games" workshops at Gen Con this year. Three sessions filled up in 30 minutes, so the interest is out there. He may end up adding two more sessions if they can find the space.
      Any chance you could film those sessions and post the best one on youtube or such??
      Pretty please??
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      First, are these free or are you also paying for the model? If so that cost needs to be included, especially when part of the allure of a 3D printer is being able to print "just what you need". If the model for a PC that you'll print once costs $5, that's a hefty cost on top of materials. If you might need 2-3 of a particular style dragon, it's at least split up a few ways but still could be a big component. Even where you might want a bunch of orcs or whatever, you still might want more then a single model, maybe 4 models for 20 orcs.

      Second, how does the top quality compare to mini manufacturer? (And the selection, but that'll just increase over time.)

      Third, how does the materials stack up vs. pre-made minis. Going back to the Reaper I know how the paint sticks (slightly hydrophyllic but no need for primer), that the minis themselves can take normal transport and wear and tear well.
      All the models I'm referencing are available on Thingiverse for free. Quality is definitely not as good, but it takes paint fairly well in my experience. From what I've seen, printing minis in vinyl makes them practically indestructible. I base all my minins anyway before painting just to be safe.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      Quote Originally Posted by pogre View Post
      I agree about Dwarven Forge's unpainted pieces. However, I think DF's huge advantage is their pre-painted selection. Generally speaking, people heavily into DF have more disposable income than time. For me, painting terrain is mostly boring and time consuming. I would rather be painting miniatures.

      The terrain company I could see really getting hurt by 3d printing in the nearish future is Hirst Arts.
      To this point, the advantage the company is technically offering is miniature/terrain PLUS painting. 3D printers can't currently do that, so yeah that's definitely an advantage.
    1. tomBitonti -
      Dwarven Forge and Reaper Bones are two data points among many. One needs to extend the data set, else conclusions are hardly meaningful.

      Other products of note:

      Nolzur's Marvelous Miniatures (Miniatures) (https://wizkids.com/dnd-unpainted/)
      Pathfinder Battles (Miniatures) (http://paizo.com/pathfinderbattles)
      Hirst Arts (Molds) (http://www.hirstarts.com/)

      And that is just a bare step into the market.

      Looking at either product mentioned (Bones and Dwarven Forge), there is a large range of prices. The reaper May collection, at $136, is about 40% less than the miniatures priced individually. And for Dwarven Forge, the price is about 30-35% less for unpainted (from about $4 a basic piece painted to about $3 unpainted). Of course, painting yourself has both a material and a time cost.

      And, commercial products are getting better at the same time that 3D printing is getting cheaper. Looking at Nolzur's, in particular, the price and quality are quite outstanding -- a lot better than I've seen previously.

      There are considerations of durability (Dwarven Forge is quite durable; Hirst is too, but only using the right material; plaster works in Hirst molds, but is quite fragile.)

      The cost of having a manufacturing area, which is a prerequisite for either a 3D printer or for casting miniatures, or for painting terrain pieces in bulk, is considerable. In particular, if there are any hazardous materials in use. Space requirements or the need to handle hazardous materials are prohibitive to a lot of folks.

      Thx!
      TomB
    1. Koloth's Avatar
      Koloth -
      Another question is the longevity of the 3D printed figure. Baring physical trauma or too much heat, the life span of a metal mini is near infinite. A lot of plastics react poorly to UV light and heat. My 15yr old laser printer has some parts that are yellowed with age, other parts still look fresh. Unfortunately, only time will tell which plastics will last.

      The real fun will come when we get 3D printers that can also print in color.
    1. barasawa -
      3d home printing is still in the very early adopter phase, even though it's trying to push for mainstream.
      The option of being able to build your very own "custom" model is a very attractive option for a lot of people.

      Of course, costs per model change quite a bit when you try to compare them to blind bags/boxes that some minis are sold in if you consider that a GM or Player may be needing a specific figure or figures, and their odds of getting what they need sucks. I saw someone spend nearly $200 just trying to assemble one pack of wolves for a game. To him the rest of the figures were just wasted money as he either already had all he needed or didn't ever expect to use them anyway.
      Basically blind bags for minis is a type of gambling that the customer really doesn't win at. Only the company comes out ahead on that transaction.

      I know, that last part does go a bit outside of 3d printing subject by itself, but if comparing costs between self printed minis and the stuff you can pick up at your FLGS, it really does need to be part of the calculation as it is definitely part of the market. Both Paizo and WoTC are part of the blindbag game, so its relevance can't be ignored.
    1. Olaf the Stout -
      Quote Originally Posted by pogre View Post
      I agree about Dwarven Forge's unpainted pieces. However, I think DF's huge advantage is their pre-painted selection. Generally speaking, people heavily into DF have more disposable income than time. For me, painting terrain is mostly boring and time consuming. I would rather be painting miniatures.

      The terrain company I could see really getting hurt by 3d printing in the nearish future is Hirst Arts.
      Iím not so sure about that. A lot of people I know that use Hirts Arts tiles treat it almost like LEGO, albeit LEGO that you have to cast up yourself.

      To create the same terrain pieces with a 3D printer youíd have to be able to have some sort of program that could allow you to design terrain pieces using the various Hirst Arts castings (or castings similar to Hirst Arts castings ) and then convert it into a file that a 3D printer could print.

      Now Iím not familiar with the digital design space, so maybe there is a program out there that does that already.
    1. pming's Avatar
      pming -
      Hiya!

      I plan on buying a "good" 3D printer sometime in the next year or so (shooting for around the $1500 mark). Why? I'm a 3D artist. So being able to rough out a model in MODO, sculpt it in ZBrush, and then pump it through a 3D printer? Priceless! I mean, the masses of RPG'ers will be buying/DL'ing various models to print themselves...but they have to find the ones they want. To me, a 3D printer is a no-brainer, really. If I need a cool model for a "dark swamp-troll" that has four arms, spikes, and chitinous plates on it...I can just make one in 3D the print it. If I need a bunch of kobolds wearing plate-mail and dual-wielding maces...I can model and print. If I need a cool terrain consisting of small craters, rocks, broken timbers and a small embankment...I can do that too.

      So, I DO see that in the near future 3D printing will start to become even more mainstream/available. And with that, we'll see more and more downloadable models and companies/people that will "custom design" models for folks. Hopefully I'll be one of them! That said...it's not QUITE there yet...hell, I don't even have a 3D printer yet, but it will come. I'm really looking forward to that day!

      ^_^

      Paul L. Ming
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by barasawa View Post
      3d home printing is still in the very early adopter phase, even though it's trying to push for mainstream.
      The option of being able to build your very own "custom" model is a very attractive option for a lot of people.

      Of course, costs per model change quite a bit when you try to compare them to blind bags/boxes that some minis are sold in if you consider that a GM or Player may be needing a specific figure or figures, and their odds of getting what they need sucks. I saw someone spend nearly $200 just trying to assemble one pack of wolves for a game. To him the rest of the figures were just wasted money as he either already had all he needed or didn't ever expect to use them anyway.
      Basically blind bags for minis is a type of gambling that the customer really doesn't win at. Only the company comes out ahead on that transaction.

      I know, that last part does go a bit outside of 3d printing subject by itself, but if comparing costs between self printed minis and the stuff you can pick up at your FLGS, it really does need to be part of the calculation as it is definitely part of the market. Both Paizo and WoTC are part of the blindbag game, so its relevance can't be ignored.
      The guy assembling the $200+ wolf pack never heard of the internet??
      A quick Google search & you can have as many individual models of whatever as you can afford. Painted, unpainted, metal, plastic, fully assembled, some assembly required.... Even next day shipping if you want to pay for that.
      And still cheaper & faster than investing in a 3d printer.
    1. Yaarel -
      Quote Originally Posted by ccs View Post
      The guy assembling the $200+ wolf pack never heard of the internet??
      A quick Google search & you can have as many individual models of whatever as you can afford. Painted, unpainted, metal, plastic, fully assembled, some assembly required.... Even next day shipping if you want to pay for that.
      And still cheaper & faster than investing in a 3d printer.
      Hey! I want to see some of the stuff you do! Create a gallery thread when you have works to show.
    1. tomBitonti -
      Something to keep in mind: For simple critters (animals, reptiles, insects, birds, fish, dinosaurs), there are plenty of non-RPG plastic miniatures to be gotten, and quite cheaply.

      You have to be careful about scale. But the prices are great. Here's one example:

      http://www.battatco.com/collections/terra-universe

      Thx!
      TomB
    1. jasper's Avatar
      jasper -
      When Walmart starts giving away mid level 3d printers for the first 50 customers who buy a PC on Black Friday, then 3d printing will come into its age.
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