Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Primer On 3D Production, Part One

I get a number of questions on 3d printing for miniatures, models, and commercial products.  I have dispensed the following advice a number of times, and figured I would write it down once and for all.  This is a reworked email to someone in the game industry that I've reconstructed as a primer.

This will be old hat for some of you, but bear with me as I pontificate.

I'll break it up into three sections, dealing with "The Machine,"  "The File," and "The Molding."


I have been a digital sculptor for over a dozen years, now.  Ed Pugh, from Reaper Miniatures, was kind enough to give me my start in the business in 2001 on his CAV mech game.

We were among the first to bring 3d printing to the wargames industry.  Not a herculean achievement, by any means, but we did a lot of trailblazing in those early years.  Our first builds were on Bathsheba Grossman's 3d wax printer, which we transitioned over into silver masters, which were then retouched and put into production via vulcanized rubber molds.  We made a few expensive mistakes, and learned many important lessons.  Thankfully, things have gotten better, and easier.

I've also done dozens and dozens of tanks, VTOLs, mechs, and spacecraft, as you see from my blog, mostly in the re-emergent 15mm scale.  A few commercial products as well, mostly small consumer goods.  Rebel Minis, Khurasan Minis, and Critical Mass Games are my three primary clients, and they keep me pretty busy.

So, if you'll let me, here's a small executive-level primer on prototyping.  Just the high points.  I will intersperse my screed with links when appropriate.

As of this writing, it is now early 2014.  Technology is advancing, so some stuff will become obsolete, but the fundamentals remain.

Many times, I'm approached by folks who want to make a product, and have already enlisted the "help" of folks who aren't familiar with 3d printing or small-scale production.

Their printouts are on the wrong type of machine.  Their files are not optimized from the start for 3D printing.  Also, their molding doesn't seem set up for 3d printed masters.  I'll address the first of these points below.

The Machine
3d printers in the past, as you know, have been beset with finish problems.  Stair-stepping.  Styrations.  Build lines.  "The Potato Chip Effect."  I made that last one up.

The smooth surface finish wasn't there.  It still isn't, in most machines.

During the last few years, though, I've seen a jump in the technology.  There are now machines out there, and I've printed work on them, that look virtually inseparable from hand-sculpts, with the advantage of symmetry, consistent edges, and modularity across a product line.  The machines are getting better and better by the day, so eventually even these new standards will be broken.

John Vegher at ( located in San Francisco, CA) has recently purchased one of these newer machines, called a "Perfactory."

Paul LaDuca at ( in the DFW, Texas area) has owned a Perfactory for a number of years.

Both gentlemen put out excellent product, at fair prices, and provide great customer support.  Please feel free to tell either one that I sent you their way.

Note that these are what work for a commercially-viable product.  If you just want to have something in your hand that you designed, a lower level machine may better suit your needs.  The prices will be lower, but the quality will suffer as well.

Shapeways is a great way to get your product out there, but they don't offer machines with the resolution capability that the previously-mentioned service bureaus do.

Entry-level 3d printers, the ones that lay down plastic filament from a roll through an extruder head, are not what you want if you want to have a printout that can go to commercial production.  They're neat, don't get me wrong, but they look like stacks of pasta noodles up close.

When you're choosing a machine, layer thickness is one of the more important numbers to look at.  This usually shows up in a machine's statistics as "layer thickness" or "Z thickness."  You're looking for .001 inches or less.  25 microns.  .025mm.  Those are incredibly tiny, but they're where you want to be.  Anything more, and you're going to be sanding, cursing, and explaining to the client/customer about why there are build lines in your final product.

Next, "The File."  The programs and formats you'll need to print in 3d.

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