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.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

jasper

Rotten DM
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.
 
S

Sunseeker

Guest
If you're producing a large number of minis, or you're making other things with a 3D printer, I would say it is worth the cost.

If you're not, and only say, want to produce a few minis, it's not worth the cost.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
[MENTION=3285]talien[/MENTION]:
Do me a favor, print the best model Beholder from Thingiverse in a similar size as the Wizkids unpainted model, ink both and make a photograph.

Use the default settings for this, do another print with the best settings for this kind of model on your printer. Then explain how much time you've spent printing with your printer to get these 'better' results.

Thingiverse is hit or miss in their model quality, 99,99% is just crap. The question is whether that 0,01% contains what you want. And if not, does someone else sell those models and what do they cost?

Someone else said it better then me: "Getting into 3D printing isn't like buying a normal printer, it's like getting into another expensive hobby (in both time and money)."

Also, if you need 5 Wargs and you don't care about legalities, why not buy the model, create a silicon mold and cast them in resin, then sell the original model. Chances are that you can get it cheaper then even 3D printing... I'm not advocating this, but just making a fairer comparison with iffy legalities.

If printing/making 3D prints doesn't sound like a fun hobby, just don't do it! This is not going to save you money if you want anything resembling a miniature.

If it does, there is so much fun stuff!

As for comparing Dwarven Forge to modular dungeon pieces... I don't know yet, depends on where your located. In mainland EU it's quite expensive stuff, even unpainted, but it's very strong durable. But also quite heavy...
 

talien

Community Supporter
A beholder is a complicated model, which is definitely different from the points I was making earlier. Printing could entail:
* Slicing it in half and then gluing the two sides together.
* Printing supports that need to be filed off.
* Printing separate pieces (probably the eye tentacles) that need to be glued back on.

And that assumes it stays on the bed correctly without creating a raft. If you create a raft, you have to file that off too.

Here's a sample post-apocalyptic truck I printed. I searched online to see if I could find a 28mm-compatible truck that had a mounted gun, seats, and spikes. There wasn't one I could purchase that wasn't an expensive model, so I decided to print this one. It took a good hour to clean off the supports on the bottom and throughout the model, base it, and paint it.
View attachment 97546
View attachment 97547
View attachment 97548
View attachment 97549
 

talien

Community Supporter
So 1 hour clean time, how much printing time? Cost of Printer ink?
Hmm, I don't entirely recall, but I think it was 15 hours. Spools are $22/spool, but I didn't have a clear view on how much the print actually used. It certainly wasn't the whole spool.
 

Cergorach

The Laughing One
A 28mm compatible truck is quite a bit larger then your average 28mm model for use in RPGs. And even here you see the layers very well. But even so, I think that the better FDM printers can work decently with terrain and mechanical models that don't have tiny organic shapes. The larger latter areas you can fill/sand.
 

osarusan

Explorer
The real benefit of 3d printing isn't in minis; it's in terrain.
Minis are still relatively cheap, and you don't need too many of them. However, a full Dwarven Forge dungeon costs well over $2000 and may not even have all the pieces you need. I print out dungeon tiles, houses, caverns, and all sorts of terrain for pennies on the dollar compared to DF prices. I can also print out exactly what I need. Big wizard battle coming up? Print up a summoning chamber. Outdoor battle at a port? Good thing I've printed docks, dockhouses, boats, etc.

For the price of my printer and maybe $500 in filament, I've printed probably $4000-5000 worth of terrain. I've done minis too, but I get better bang for my buck with the Reaper Bones Kickstarters. I only print minis when there's a specific mini I need that I can't find for sale (I printed up a giant crayfish to use in the Village of Hommlet, for example).
 

talien

Community Supporter
The real benefit of 3d printing isn't in minis; it's in terrain.
Minis are still relatively cheap, and you don't need too many of them. However, a full Dwarven Forge dungeon costs well over $2000 and may not even have all the pieces you need. I print out dungeon tiles, houses, caverns, and all sorts of terrain for pennies on the dollar compared to DF prices. I can also print out exactly what I need. Big wizard battle coming up? Print up a summoning chamber. Outdoor battle at a port? Good thing I've printed docks, dockhouses, boats, etc.

For the price of my printer and maybe $500 in filament, I've printed probably $4000-5000 worth of terrain. I've done minis too, but I get better bang for my buck with the Reaper Bones Kickstarters. I only print minis when there's a specific mini I need that I can't find for sale (I printed up a giant crayfish to use in the Village of Hommlet, for example).
That's the conclusion I came to as well. For those of us who want to fully recreate a scene for a game, rather than playing the random-purchase lottery or buying a bunch of terrain you MIGHT need later, you can let all that go and no longer hoard pieces until you might need them. I have an entire work bench worth's of stuff -- minis and terrain -- that I've collected over a decade just in case I need them. Now? As long as I know I can print what I need, with the exception of the most common pieces, I don't need to do any of that -- I only print what I actually use.

I'm pretty sure folks like us are high-end consumers in the hobby, and 3D printing is quietly eating away at the edges of our contributions.
 

tfelts

Villager
I have a DIY printer kit ~$230 and use the cheapest filament on Amazon ~$12-14 for 1kg and have been very happy with what I've been able to print in regards to miniatures and terrain. It does take some time to tune it in and get settings right for each application.

I am using the stock nozzle that came with the printer but also ordered a smaller nozzle (~$2) that should be able to get even better detail on the miniatures, although at a slower print speed.

I have done minimal post clean-up on my prints.

Tim
View attachment 97615View attachment 97616View attachment 97617View attachment 97618View attachment 97619
 
Last edited by a moderator:

Dirk Wiggley

Villager
I have a good quality 3D printer and I find that it is amazing for terrain and not so much for miniatures. One thing the article does not mention is that you need to get a model file to send to the printer for whatever you wish to print. You can either use a CAD program (free or expensive) and it is a non trivial task to learn how to use them, and make your own files or you can buy the files (sometimes free, often not for good ones) which you can then print any number of times. I can design some terrain but the free CAD program that I use can not handle very complex objects (lots of polygons) so a miniature and complex terrain is not something I can make on my own. Also, I can get clear resolution down to about 0.5 mm when printing objects so again this works well with most terrain and not well with many minis.

Most minis are one offs for PCs and NPS (unless you're doing war gaming or making a war band of monsters) so the cost goes way up considering the model file. So with this in mind I'll keep buying my minis from my favorite manufacturers and print my own terrain.

Regards,

Dirk
 
For the terrain market, a variant of 3D-printing might be printing molds (or master models for molds) for plaster surfaces or cast resin which then could be assembled into buildings or landscape items.
 

Gilladian

Adventurer
I didnt read every post, but for those in larger communities who want to see a 3d printer in action, check with your local library. They may have one and may do free or at-cost printing.
 

Printerstuff

Villager
I have the [FONT=&quot]Da Vinci Jr. Printer and it is amazing to create miniatures. Light weight, compact and durable. It is develop my skills for creating various type of miniatures. It is great for me, because i cell it with affordable price and earn well.[/FONT]
 

Advertisement

Advertisement

Top