Tuesday, December 30, 2014

3D Printing Is Now Ready To Compete In 28mm

by SandWyrm

I've been talking about 3D printing for a long time now, and like most everyone, I'd been wondering when we'd finally reach the point where a 28mm 3D printed mini would be indistinguishable from an injection-molded plastic or metal mini.

Well... That time has now arrived. Not on the home printers, not yet. But in this post I'm going to show you what the high-end printers are now capable of. With some 40K/Necromunda compatible prints from Shapeways that will blow you away.

After talking about the iBox Nano several weeks back, I found myself browsing through the catalog over at the 3D printing service Shapeways.

3D Renders of CAD files always look nice. But would the minis look as good when printed?

When what did I see, but a rather nice set of 40K-ish looking minis by Gang War Miniatures. This Female Miner Gang is obviously intended to work with Necromunda, and maybe (in a pinch) as Imperial Guard figures for 40K.

Price? $22.85 for four.

Depending on which single-pose GW kits you compare that to, it's either a steal, or overpriced.

On the ridiculous high-end, GW is selling resin casts of 4 old 'Traitors of Chaos' for $37. While on the ultra-reasonable low-end, you can buy 5 of the new Dark Vengeance Chaos Cultists for just $10.

We won't talk about their Sisters of Battle models. :)

I think though, that you can at least say that the 3D printed Miner Gang is broadly competitive with GW's current offerings.

I bought 2.

Delivery Time/Accuracy

Shapeways doesn't warehouse prints. When you order something from them, your purchases go into the production que. When your turn comes, your prints are made and then shipped out to you. So you're not going to be able to get something a few days after ordering like you would with GW or Amazon. You're at the mercy of the que.

I ordered the models on December 3rd, and the order page said that the models would arrive around the 20th - just in time for Christmas. As it turned out though, the models didn't ship until the 21st, and didn't actually arrive at my door until the 26th – just as I was leaving town to go see family. I know it's the holidays and all, but this slip was disappointing.

More strange though was the packaging. They double-boxed the order. Why? The small box with a little bit of bubble-wrap would have been more than sufficient to protect everything.

Stranger still was the 2nd box that came from Shapeways. It was huge (2 foot by 2 foot), and contained an identical packing slip to the one from the box my actual order came in. But which contained 4 different lengths of what look like tongue depressors.

Part of me imagines some intensive care unit somewhere missing its 2' long tongue depressors for examining Ebola patients at a distance. But I really don't know what the heck these things could possibly be used for. Or why they'd have to be 3D printed.

Oh well... Shapeways obviously has issues with their scheduling and shipping accuracy. GW has a good advantage here for now.

Material Strength

The 'tongue depressors' did give me a chance to test out the strength of Shapeways' standard Nylon print material though. So I put one in a vice and bent it.

Hmmnnn... not bad.

It finally broke with a hard snap when I bent it 90º. That's pretty darn good strength! Certainly stronger than any standard plastic of a similar shape, and it's miles better than the crumbly powder-based prints that I've worked with before. Which this material sort of resembles.

The models that I bought were made from a different material. Where the tongue depressors are rough and spongy looking, the 'Frosted Detail Plastic' of the gangers is translucent, and ultra-smooth. I'm not even sure it's a plastic. Probably a UV cured resin of some kind.

I really had to look hard to see any print artifacts, like ridging, and these are so shallow that I was betting that a coat of primer would cover them right over.

Unlike the flexible nylon of the depressors, the minis are quite rigid. With very little flex to them. Less even than Forge World resin.

Just to see what would happen, I broke off one of the models' legs. It snapped cleanly with about the same amount of force that it would take to break a FW resin piece. That same force would bend an injection-molded plastic piece until it turned white at the bend point, but wouldn't break it.

Fixing that leg was more problematic though. First I tried super glue, but it wouldn't bond. Nor would it glue the two halves of the snapped depressor together. Even though that material was much more porous.

Ditto with standard melt-type plastic cement. No bond at all on either material.

So, much like Mantic's resin models, I had to pull out the 2-part epoxy. Which worked great. The leg stuck back together perfectly on contact, and a few minutes later the epoxy cured it solid. I couldn't even tell where the break had been. I accidentally dropped a model onto concrete later, breaking off an arm. But again, the break was so clean that I was able to flawlessly repair it with epoxy.

Model Cleanup/Basing

The good news is that there's almost nothing to clean up on these models. No mold lines, no barrels to drill (holes are there already), nothing. The only thing you have to trim off is the micro-sprue that holds each group of four together when printing. This snaps right off with a little X-Acto blade work, and the models had no trouble standing up on their feet afterward.

'Cleaning' and basing all eight models took just a couple of minutes. Nice!

Undercoating The Models

Now this is where things got a bit difficult.

For years now, I've used Tamaya spray enamel primer. This stuff (usually) sticks to everything, and preserves every last possible bit of detail on the model.

That is, until I sprayed it on these models. The first few sprays went on fine, but as I finished up the coating, I noticed this spongy, mottled look starting to appear.

I was a bit afraid that the enamel had melted the surface of the minis, but fortunately this wasn't the case. Scraping the paint off lightly with an X-Acto knife revealed that the effect was just the paint failing to properly adhere to the plastic/resin. The models themselves were fine.

Focusing on the parts of the models where the paint DID adhere though... The models look great! There's no visible ridges betraying that these are 3D prints at all.

So I used my Dremel's brush attachment to take off all of the paint that didn't adhere on 4 of the models. I then VERY slowly undercoated them again. Spraying just 1-2 quick strokes at a time, and letting them dry 5-10 minutes between passes. Instead of my usual method of spraying the models with 2-3 strokes from each of 4 different angles before letting them dry.

As you can see, this go-slow approach resulted in a much smoother application of paint.

The go-slow models are on the left, and the go-fast models are on the right. Big difference!

Once dry, I then did my usual brown wash over the grey undercoat. Which pops the details nicely for painting.

By the time this was done, I couldn't see any print artifacts at all.


Home 3D printing still has a ways to go. But the 3D print services, with their much higher-end printers, can deliver a smooth, detailed 28mm mini right now. One that is on par, or better, than single-pose injection molded plastic. At a price that's cheaper than metal, and only a little more expensive than standard GW multi-pose plastics.

(And yes, Battlefront has to worry too. If these were tanks, they'd be 50% cheaper than BF's resin prices, at an equal or higher quality!)

Detail-wise, these minis are amazing in certain ways. Whereas plastic injection-molded minis can't have deep gaps between an arm holding a gun and the torso behind it, these minis look very natural. In that there's a complete arm there. Much as if it had been assembled from a multi-pose kit. But with the rich detail of a plastic or metal single-pose model. The guns have barrel holes, knives hang down from belts without 'filler' behind them, and their handles point up from the belt without any filler behind them either.

On the downside though, these materials are not what we're used to working with, and that's going to take some adjustment. The Shapeways service itself is also having teething issues with their scheduling and package management, even after a year in business. So while you can get a very nice looking 28mm mini from them, you'll have to put up with more of a wait than you're used to when buying standard plastics. You also run the risk of not getting what you asked for on the first try (or getting something you didn't ask for). :)

As a proof of concept though, these minis show that detailed tabletop-ready models are possible now from the high-end 3D printers. Not with ridges and spongy looks, but at a quality comparable, and in some ways much better than, traditional metal/resin/plastic models made in molds.

GW, if it had a mind to, could be setting up a 3D printed bitz service right now. Battlefront, if it had a mind to, could be printing out its tanks and infantry directly for its smaller runs of specific historical troops/vehicles.

If they had a mind to...


  1. Holy Crap, those look great! And like you said, the price is certainly well in the range of GW minis...

    1. I know, right? They turned out to be much nicer, and more durable, than I expected. Only hang-up is the hassle of the priming. But I can probably find a better paint formulation out there somewhere. Or just prime them with an airbrush like I used to.

  2. Thanks for the post SandWyrm, they are very cool. I had the same problem with primer that you had, which made me wonder how the material would react with the usual chemicals we use to strip miniatures. Some folks are sealing it with PVA prior to priming, but I just think that is madness. I'll give your (careful) spray technique a go, or as you said, power up the airbrush.

    1. I didn't have any Simple Green to try out on them. Which is why I went with the Dremel brush for removing the badly adhering paint. The brush didn't seem to leave any marks on the material either.

      I do agree that trying to seal these with PVA would be madness.

      There has to be a formulation of paint out there somewhere, or a cleansing agent, that would make this easier. We just have to find it.

  3. lol, actually these have been on Shapeways for well over a year, but thanks for the post as I always wondered what the actual printed minis looked like. Also, having purchased something non-gaming related from shapeways, I too found the double boxing shipping method kinda mystifying.

    1. Their most popular category seems to be custom jewelry, so maybe that's the reason for double-boxing everything as standard. Less drama that way. :)

  4. Well, I'm sold. I want these minis. The material is a bit of a concern for me though. It seems to be of lower quality than GW-plastic and FW-resin, but maybe not significantly so.

    I'm a bit of skeptic when it comes to 3D printing, but this gives me pause.

    The only thing I am confused about is the efficiency of having ALL your production through a printer - why don't they print prototypes and then make molds for resin or metal casting? Seems like printing all the orders is inefficient and slow as you have experienced. Thoughts?

    On a side note, the high-end printers have been used by GW and Corvus Belli (that I know of) for a while now. So GW already has a mind to use this technology - just not in the way you are envisioning perhaps (bits service).

    1. The material is... different. Whether you consider it to be a higher or lower quality than GW plastic or resin probably depends on your needs.

      If you want sharp/deep details, high durability, and seamless fixing of breaks, then this material blows away anything else. If you want to be able to hack them up and customize things, it's going to be difficult for that. It would be much better in that case to modify them on a computer and just print your mod in its final form.

      As for Shapeways' business model... I don't know to what degree they pre-print popular items. Or how much warehouse space they would have for that. You're talking about a company with thousands upon thousands of products in its catalog.

      To be fair, I was also ordering during the Christmas season. So they may be much more timely (and accurate) at other times of the year.

      GW might be using printers like these to make masters for finecast molds, I really don’t know. But at some point it will make sense just to print those models directly instead.

    2. GW uses 3D printing for plastic models actually. I believe what they do is they make a digital design, and actually 3D print the mold, then mass produce from there.

      I believe their finecast stuff is still hand-sculpted.

      I don't know about using 3D printing for all of your production though - molds seem so much more efficient, with the 3D printing being used for masters.

    3. If you mean that they digitally machine their molds (different thing than additive printing), then yeah, I'm with you.

      I'm not talking about 3D printing replacing their high-volume plastic lines. But for the low-volume lines that used to be metal, and are now finecast, 3D printing will someday (maybe even now) make sense there. Especially given how much higher the quality is over finecast.

    4. One other thing... These models can't be resin-cast. They're not designed for it. So it's not even an option.

    5. So 3D printing will replace a small portion of GW's model range (metal and finecast) but will not compete against GW's ever growing line of high-quality plastic multi-pose kits?

    6. For GW (or any other mass-market miniature manufacturer), 3D printing will one day allow them to economically print and ship minis with a relatively lower sales potential. Which is what metal and resin are used for now.

      But 3D printing them will allow those manufacturers to skip the mold-making step and create minis of a higher overall quality. Think Finecast, only with more material strength, no bubbles, no mold lines, and deeper back-cut details.

      Then, as they gain expertise, they could offer custom prints using some of the tools I’ve shown startups working on in previous posts.

      Plastics won’t be replaced anytime soon, but they’ll become the ‘economy’ option for people collecting armies. The price of which will be forced down as 3D printing becomes cheaper over time, and customers shift to wanting a larger number of custom minis in their collections.

      The big threat to GW (or anyone else), is that anyone will be able to set up shop using services like Shapeways to ship quality minis to customers at reasonable prices. This will put price pressure on GW. killing the fat margins that are currently propping up their failing retail arm. Unless GW can co-opt the trend by turning their stores into 3D printing centers, those stores will all be gone within 5-8 years.

    7. Interesting speculation. Will be neat to follow in the future.

  5. While I am not of fan of the miniature I do like the quality. I just went through the 28mm catalog and found a few things that caught my eye but most were either crude, not my style, or to expensive for that it was. I might get some of the alien head swaps for my tyranids. The longer this is out there the more digital artist will makes stuff for it. By next year I might be excited for these but until then I will sit patiently on the sideline.

    1. The minis aren't my favorite in terms of design, so I feel your pain. Shapeways is full of 40K-ish weapons and models, most of which are horrible. These at least stand out as decently sculpted figures, which sets them apart from the rest.

      The tech is maturing now. We just need more quality content.

  6. Ive had my shapeways dreadnought autocannon arms for about 2 years now. they look like the tongue depressor you have, Ill admit i havent gotten around to painting them, but standard hobby glue let my magnets stick to them.

  7. Heya Sandy Happy New Year!

    Cool lookin' models, but wow- what a strange material! Clear? That's different.
    I've been very disappointed with Battlefront's transition to plastic.
    Although I think the Mechanised Box Sets are a good deal- 56 odd dollars (discounted price) for a Grenadier Company or Armored Rifles with halftracks. That's a good deal.
    But then they release plastic Panzer IV's for 50 bucks for 5.
    What? Why would I buy that when I can get a better deal from Plastic Soldier Company?
    They finally decided to kill easy army though, so now we gotta pay a dollar a list (instead of a couple dollars for a whole book, with PDF lists and other stuffs free). Sigh.

    As for GW- no way. They want you paying full price to get those spare Melta Guns. Bitz? Never. Buy the box.

    1. Happy New Year!

      Don't disagree with anything you say. Battlefront really seems to be riding the clueless train. While GW is too obsessed with margins to see what they could be raking in with a little adjustment to their thinking.

  8. So Ibox Nano can do those Minis? Or those are shapeways products?

    1. I think the Nano is similar tech, but these are Shapeways minis. Can't say what the Nano is or isn't capable of yet.

  9. Nice article. Any chance of an updated look at 3d printing minis? Have home systems advanced enough and have any companies like Shapeways emerged to dominate the scene by specializing and catering to wargaming? I'm a 3d artist interesting in getting involved in this growing scene...

    1. I haven't kept up with all the home systems that were running kickstarters, but if you want to get in on this I'd start with Shapeways. Upload your design, agree on a price, and they do the printing and shipping for you. Then start your own website that points back to the Shapeways store. I'm sure they have tools that let you send in orders using your own UI.

    2. Interesting. Can Shapeways produce them cheaply enough to compete with plastic box sets and such though? I've been looking into Bolt Action recently, looks like a fun game but the quality of 28mm WW2 miniatures out there was a real turn off for me. From my research nothing available is comparable quality to the top fantasy/sci-fi model ranges imo. Wonky faces, off balance poses etc. Seems like some quality infantry minis would sell well...Or WW2 players just aren't that picky?

    3. Well, the Female Miner Gang is $22.85 for four, or $5.71 each.

      That's a bit over half as much more than similar sets for Bolt Action at retail prices.

      If you head over to the GW realm though, it's less than an Imperial Guard command squad, but about 1/3 more than the per-model cost of a 10-man Guard squad.

      A lot also depends on what you want to charge before Shapeways tacks on its own margins. If you bought in bulk from them, and sold them yourself, you might be able to get a better deal.

    4. Oh, and WWII players are plenty picky when they have a choice of models. But in the Flames of War realm the competition has been both cheaper AND higher quality. So I don't know what kind of premium most would be willing to pay. The new Battlefront plastics run about 2/5 more than models from the Plastic Soldier Company, and look nicer, but with the price difference I feel they're borderline as a choice.

    5. Hm hm hm...food for thought. Thanks for the info Wyrm. I'm working on a trooper that I want to have printed anyway just for my own fun. I might post pics here when I'm done and get your thoughts ;)


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