It is quite possible 3D printing will completely change how miniatures are created and used by hobbyists and gamers. But what exactly is 3D printing and what can it do?
Imagine you are product designer creating a new product and instead of dealing with manufacturing, logistics of transport, storing stock in warehouses and dealing with retailers, you simply sell the 3D model to people who print your product in their own home. The thing is you do not have to imagine.
This can be realized today through 3D printing, and is being touted as the next Industrial Revolution. It will transform object manufacturing in the same way the desktop printer has to publishing. The industry is growing fast and already there are many entrepreneurs utilizing the freedom and flexibility that bespoke manufacturing provides.
But what is a 3D printer ?
Well it is a device that uses a process known as Additive Manufacturing to build an object (usually from ABS plastic, the same as used in LEGO) layer-by-layer. While the technology has been around for a few decades, it is only now starting to become affordable for the average household. The process starts by creating or obtaining a 3D digital model of an object you wish to print.
This can be done with traditional 3D modelling packages, by searching the internet on websites such as Thingiverse or by using some of the easier to use tools coming out such as Tinkercad. Once a 3D model is obtained, it must go through a mostly automatic process in order to convert it to a set of instructions for the 3D printer. The file is then sent to the printer and usually between 20 minutes to an hour later you have a real life version of your 3D object.
There are a wide range of devices out there, with a huge price range, but the current entry point 3D printers is either with a Makerbot or a RepRap. Both are open source, though the Makerbot is a bit slicker. The draw of the RepRap is that it is built almost entirely of parts you can find at a local hardware store or parts that another RepRap can print.
This means you can print the parts your friends need to build one! These machines are very nifty and cost around $1500 so are reasonably affordable when compared to the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to outlay for the big industrial machines. The results are striking but still have plenty of room for improvement, their resolution is low so they don’t create a polished finish and can take a lot of calibration in order to correctly setup.
An alternative to these entry point printers is to use a service like Ponoko or Shapeways. You can send your 3D model files to them over the internet and they will quote a price to print them in a given material. If the price is reasonable, you can order a print and they will ship it to you. They have some high end machinery and can deliver very nice results, including printing in exotic materials such as metal and sandstone. What will this mean? Consider a future where designers don’t create a single object. Instead they will create a parametric system which defines a possible infinite set of objects that encapsulate a desired function.
Think of a chair that can be adjusted to any dimensions, or a set of shelves built exactly to your wall space. This technology has the possibility to bring back the personalization that craftsmen once provided before the industrial revolution, while offering the economic savings that mass production has brought us. It is an exciting prospect, however the current entry level is around the sophistication of personal computing during the 70s and 80s, thus there is a long way to go before the mainstream will get on board. So for now personal 3D printing is mostly the domain of geeks – but I think that in the next 5 to 10 years you might just have a 3D printer in your home or office.