Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Are wargamers driving 3D printing innovation?

Interestingly, there was a Dutch report out recently suggesting that 54% of Dutch people having order 3D prints, had ordered toys of which it was remarked that there is a high share of figurines among them. That would suggest wargamers are a driving force behind the industry.

Two sample monsters at Shapeways stand for Dutch Design Week
Now while I know a few people who have ordered bit from Dutch 3D printing company Shapeways, I'm not quite convinced that this would be enough to drive an industry. Of course direct sales to consumers is still a small industry (some stuff I've seen suggests that industrial or artisanal prototyping is a major source of 3D prints) and the biggest category is art (75% of people have ordered art works). This means that the process is still so expensive that people will only use it for high added value products. Now some toys may be in that area, but wargaming miniatures probably not, especially as the quality of 3D printing is not up to the standard of metal and plastics yet.

There's an interesting post by Andrew Rae of Khorosho Productions about digital design of miniatures. Andrew also uses digital printing for replacement parts. He explains why digital printing is still an art.

Samples from two different printers, taken from Andrew's blog

So what's the future for 3D printing and wargames? My guess:

In the coming few years we will go from the stage where it is only used by a few designers to one where we will see the first commercial releases, with a wide variety of quality. Some new entries (3D print only) will provide low quality miniatures and some established companies will use it for promotional purposes, riding the hype.

My reasoning behind this is that for new entries there is no cost of switching technique and process from sculpting, molding and casting to direct digital, which is holding back the many small manufacturers that have invested heavily in acquiring those skills. Also, the new entries will be amateurs not worrying too much about profitability. And I mean that as even less than many part time manufacturers presently.

Another cool monster from Shapeways

In a following phase, starting within the next decade, some of the low quality producers will improve their technique and find viable business models. I won't be surprised if this leads to one or two of them cornering a large part of the market and becoming major players later. Some established companies will switch (in stages or in one big step) to 3D print.

It will take two decades, I think, for 3D printing to overtake the present forms of production. This will have to do as much with current designers and companies dying out and wear on molds as with companies switching. It will not disappear completely. But once you need to replace a mold, it might be cheaper at some point to just scan the master miniatures.

A wind driven contraption

Of course there will also grow a community of people making copies of models by other companies. These will be lower quality but cheaper. Piracy will be an interesting development, especially if it is hard to monitor. In that case it might actually drive down prices. That development will be very much driven by the moment where 3D scanning/copying will become mainstream.

But in the meantime, will there be designers making money by giving workshops on 3D design and printing? Will there really be a move to companies just providing designs to be printed at home? That would expand the market even more than the internet has done, because shipping costs will disappear. On the other hand, how do you prevent piracy by individuals or local shops? It also depends on the time it will take 3D printing to really compete on cost with mass plastics production.

On the other hand, with the expansion of DTP and lowering of print costs you had a similar situation for boardgames in the 1990s. This has made it much easier to self publish. That is probably the reason that the boardgame industry has so many small, marginal self publishers hoping that one day they make it big. That may also happen in miniatures, although digital designing requires a level of practice and experience comparable to sculpting.


  1. I discussed this with Seb in relation to board game production. He can imagine a future where you purchase a boxed game and it is a download for local 3d printing. Who owns the printer etc. Is to be determined.

    As for counterfeits, I would imagine an attempt to place an internal watermark inside a solid piece which would be difficult to scan. But then I could imagine this being beaten by a penetrating scanning technology.

    Food for thought.

    This 3d printing is going to disrupt so many things.

    1. I wouldn't be surprised if it is picked up by the print & play community. If you like to play with miniatures, but don't mind paying a bit less for lower quality, then it's fine. Also, unique miniatures (eg entertainment intellectual property) can be provided this way


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