Pewterpocalypse: 3D Printing in Table-Top Wargaming

By Bill Gray 30 May 2018 5

One of the things I noticed at the last convention I attended, Cold Wars 2018, was the growing presence of vendors hawking tanks and other vehicles produced by 3D Printing (3DP, or 'Additive Manufacturing' as it's officially known). I saw some of the product lines and had to admit they looked pretty damn good. Thus, it should come as no surprise that my occasionally warped thoughts turned to the million dollar question – is this the long awaited lead and pewter killer in miniature wargaming? Well, the plastic figures created by the Perry twins, while excellent, hasn’t done it, but then again 3DP is just different.

3DP, how does it work?

First, let’s assume we are talking about 3DP for home use, to produce your own models, all the while remembering that for commercial trade the equipment will be much more powerful and expensive, the designs more pristine and of higher quality. The first thing you will need then is some good design software, CAD variety (or alternatively a 3D scanner, etc). Your model will be based on a 3D drawing that you design and save to a stereolithography or STL file. Such software can be expensive but as with many other programs, it's also easy to find free, lite versions that might suite your needs quite well. One such product is Sketchup Free and seems to be highly recommended in the hobby world. From this point the file goes into a program called a Slicer which converts the CAD drawing to a format usable in 3DP. It decides what the inside and outside of the object is and shaves layers from bottom to top. This final file is then moved to your printer.

Fiat 2000 Collage

There are three types of 3DP machines available, but the most cost effective and thus common is FDM or Fused Deposition Modelling of which the PrinterBot Simple Pro is a good example. FDM works fine for larger objects with sharp angles and lines such as tanks and terrain, but unless you purchase a higher resolution model, not so well for organics such as cavalry. FDM works by having a heated nozzle with a sharp tip that produces a continuous stream of plastic which uses the slicer image to construct the model by building layer after layer, with each “fusing” to the one beneath it. Such a machine will run you about $600 US if you put it together yourself. The plastic spools, however, are quite reasonable at $30.00 US per kilogram. After the cost of the printer has been excluded, a large five section battle damaged wall in 28 mm will run you about $1.00 per section or just under $5.00 total. The printing time is a downer, however, as something like a 15 mm Tiger I German tank could take as much as six hours to produce. However, once started, you can go to bed or go to work and simply leave the machine running while you’re away. Also, be advised that unless you go for high resolution machines, your model could come with a lot of striation (the faint lines showing the layers of the model).

There are other types of printers of course. Relatively new and seldom seen is the 3D Inkjet Printer, often used by 3D printing firms such as Shapeways because of its higher quality. For consumers, there is Stereolithographic Printers which use laser technology and thus produce a much more finely detailed product. The problem, of course, is higher costs (as in thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars) for both the machine and the printing material, longer printing time and higher maintenance. The Formlabs Form 2 for $3350 US is typical.

Fiat 2000 circa 1918

Fortunately, there is a lot of free stuff out there to alleviate some of the cost and time issues. Many sites will sell premade STL files, while sites like the ubiquitous Thingiverse have free STL files contributed by the general public just because it's fun. If you want to sell your models but don’t want the business hassle, you can simple send the STL files to sites like Shapeways who will set up and print the file for you. However, because they are a middle man that uses 3D Inkjet technology, prices are going to be significantly higher. The World War I Italian Fiat 2000 tank in 15 mm, for example will run $26.00 US. BTW, while I thought this thing was some sort of Steampunk joke, it really existed and evidently two Fiat 2000’s made it to the front in 1918. I want one, admittedly for my Napoleonics table, but I still want one.

Enter Minuteman Miniatures, Cold Wars 2018

What I did not find during my research were firms whose business was solely 3DP for hobby products, and the few I did were often Warhammer 40K related. That may be changing, however, as one of the more fascinating vendors that showed up for Cold Wars 2018 was Minuteman Miniatures, a 2018 startup run by Michael Elices (Warboss) and Gian Paolo Aroldi (Hypeman). From their booth they took orders for their current product line, almost exclusively tanks and military vehicles, but also orders for custom made figures using the customer’s head. These were 25 mm figures and included such things as a mounted Napoleonic warrior, a highland warrior in scale armor and so on. More are on the way, and since the CAD produced customer’s head (a 90 second process using a camera like device that circles the jolly churl) can be saved, they can be used for future releases. Not a marketable product to be sure, but a real attention grabber and great way to show what 3DP printing can do. After all, who wouldn’t want to be Prince Dabulamanzi kaMpande skewering redcoats at Rorke's Drift?

What makes them the money, of course, are their 3DP combat vehicles, and the product list is exceptionally large, coming in both 15 (standard resolution) and 25 mm (high resolution), and stretching from the Great War until today. For example, the World War I collection has 40 different models to include for France:

Article Table

These guys use a new high quality liquid resin, and what looks to be a Stereolithographic printer, so detail is excellent. All sales are custom, on demand with turn-around time of about two weeks and very reasonable pricing, about $6.00 for a 15 mm tank. Obviously larger or 25 mm products cost more, but the more you buy the cheaper the cost per model becomes per the firm’s discount offer. By contrast, a box of five German Panzer IVJ tanks of the resin and metal variety will cost you $62.50 US over at Flames of War. And given one of the products listed is the German Karl-Garaet 600 mm siege mortar, you know there are a lot of options.

Not that everything is rosy, mind you. I spoke with Elices and he told me smaller scales for organics continued to be a problem. Their printing goes down to a detail level of 25 microns (a human hair is 100), so whatever detail is on a 25 mm figure, the hardware will try to duplicate it on a 15 or 10 mm figure. And putting button numbers on a 15 mm figure, he noted, makes for a flimsy product so far. Nevertheless, color me impressed.


Call for Pall Bearers?

Well not yet, as I see 3DP as more of a supplement and partner to lead and pewter gaming vice a replacement. There are still issues with producing smaller scales, particularly organics, and the time needed to print a single vehicle makes bulk production and sales very much in the too hard to do category (even though Minuteman on TMP says they can knock out 100). Seriously, if you want to order an entire World War II Soviet Guards Tank Division in 15 mm 3DP, you might be waiting a long time, even if folks like Minuteman can fit you in.

On the other hand, there is price to consider, especially when a full size 3DP model of the Titanic sells less than a box of five Space Marines over at Games Workshop (just kidding, but not by much). If you combine that with the need for only one or two models or a custom designed model that no one on the planet makes due to perceived unmarketability, then 3DP is a very attractive solution. Indeed, the 3DP process has the potential to offer a far greater variety of options so far as tanks and the like are concerned, because there is no need to create, produce and store molds, but merely tweak a CAD image.


And let’s remember it wasn’t too long ago that a shoebox sized bag with a rotary dial phone and a 35 mm SLR camera were needed to do what a cheap smart phone with an uber megapixel PHD (press here dummy) camera does today. Technology marches forward, at a faster clip than ever before. Scale and production issues might be solved. So just in case I might advise pewter pushers to fasten their seat belts, because the next 10 – 20 years could be a bit of a bumpy ride.



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