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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?

[h=3]3D-ownside[/h]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.
[h=3]The Upside[/h]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?
[h=3]Meet the Competition[/h]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.
[h=3]Are We There Yet?[/h]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

Michael Tresca


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Green Onceler

Explorer
For me, the problem isn't being able to afford Reaper or Wizkids stuff, it's finding the time to paint them.

I don't care for the blind box purchase method that prepainted mins employ. And the paint is...variable.

So, I'm mainly stuck using Paizo Pawns.
 

TheSculptor

First Post
In my experience as a modeler, printing your own 3D miniatures at home doesn't worth it unless you have high knowledge about sculpting and printing, and you print hundreds of miniatures. You'll need a good printer, something like Form 2, which cost more than 2000 USD. Printing miniatures with FDM printers is just crap. So many hours testing and changing values like retraction distance or printing speed just to get such poor results. However, there are companies that will print your files for an affordable price. Anyone can print a mini in Shapeways for just 10-15 bucks. How many miniatures would you need to print to amortize buying a printer?
If you haven't found nice models on the internet and don't even know how to sculpt your own minis, you can also hire an artist -like me :cool:- to do it and avoid a lot of teeth pain. I'm working now for Furry and the Beast sculpting custom miniatures. Gamers just send us pics and we sculpt and print their character. So easy!

Anyway, I can say 3D printing at home is quite useful for printing scenery. FDM printers have enough resolution to print cool assets and it could be an affordable way to introduce yourself on the 3D printing world for wargaming. Much easier an worthy than trying printing minis.
 

sliverthorn

Explorer
A decent compromise that my groups have done is to build their mini on Heroforge to get the CAD file and then use a local company to do high-def prints. One player has a home printer but until we get one that is better terrain is all we can do at home.
 
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I made a pretty decent gray ooze and black pudding using hot glue guns and colored glue sticks. Not quite the same thing, but close enough to be worth mentioning.

Johnathan
 

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