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(3D) Printing Out The Internet

The convergence of 3D printing, market places for digital objects, and designers supporting themselves online has interesting implications for coming Metaverse ecosystems. The creative economies that are going to emerge will be wild.

This post isn’t about all that though.

Instead it’s about the subject that’s got me thinking about the above.

This post is about 3D Printing and Toy Soldiers.

I hope you find something interesting!

With all the discussion about Metaverse I’ve instead been obsessed with thinking about the reverse: ‘printing out the internet‘.

I saw my first FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) 3D printer about a decade ago. A janky homebrew RepRap in the corner of a cold concrete London maker space cheerfully spooling out an iPod Touch stand.

Seeing it operate in person, I was skeptical about some of the wilder claims being made by proponents of decentralised manufacturing at the time. But my friend Mark had just made the documentary The Man Who Prints Houses and I have remained optimistic about the technology in the longer term. It was interesting (for example) to see my old school’s design department spring up as a fab lab during the UK’s PPE crisis last year.

Watching the noisy machine squirt one layer of melted plastic out after another a decade ago I knew that this technology would change at least one industry:

Table Top Wargames.

A Maturing Technology

Just weeks later I bookmarked a piece in 2012 from The Guardian about British tabletop war game manufacturer Games Workshop issuing DCMA take downs to The Pirate Bay and 3D file sharing site Thingiverse.

3D printing is an emerging technology, but it has attracted a passionate community of hobbyists who design and build a variety of objects. Some are designed from scratch; others are generated from 3D scans of existing items.

The community recently had its first run-in with copyright law when tabletop battle games company Games Workshop issued DMCA takedown notices against Thingiverse, a site where “makers” share designs.

Games Workshop spokesman Kyle Workman said: “We are very protective of our intellectual property, and our legal team investigates each issue on a case-by-case basis.”

Asked whether the company might ever consider selling its own digital 3D designs, he said: “That would be nearly impossible, unless the customer had plastic, metal and resin casting equipment.”

I’ve been following 3D printing and Tabletop Miniatures ever since.

Wayback Machine Article Link

2010-19

It’s worth fast forwarding though the last decade of 3D printers, to give a sense of just how quickly the technology has matured. Throughout the TwentyTeens 3D printers improved rapidly. A key focus being resolution. I.E. reducing visible layer lines and increasing detail levels in the print.

Whats fascinating about 3D printers as a consumer product category is that their history can almost entirely be tracked via Kickstarter.

B9Creator were the first out the gate in 2012 with their (for the time) high resolution FDM printer. I’ll admit the $2,375 price point was not very consumer friendly, but much cheaper than any commercial/industry alternatives at the time. It also showed that there was a nascent consumer market for this technology.

Unsurprisingly it was a smash hit.

Later in 2014 FDM printing was joined by a sister technology: SLA printing (Stereolithography).

Unlike the kind of 3D printing you may be imagining where material is laid down by a nozzle squirting hot plastic on to a base plate (Fused Deposition Modelling), SLA printers use a laser projected into the bath of UV sensitive resin though clear glass from underneath.

The laser light will semi-cure photosensitive resin from the underside of the vat. Meaning the model is printed from the bottom up with a base plate rising from a bath of resin rather than additive top down.

Two years after the B9Creator Formlabs launched their first ‘affordable’ SLA printer in 2014 at a backer price of $2499.

Developments continued quickly with MSLA printers coming on scene – reducing costs further.

MSLA stands for Masked Stereolithography. Replacing the expensive laser arrangement at the bottom of the resin vat with an LCD panel. This panel then essentially exposes a stencil of the object one layer at a time as the baseplate rises.

It’s probably worth situating SLA and MSLA printing as a consumer technology against in the industrial timeline. Patents on SLA printing expired in 2007. Around the same time, the smartphone revolution bought the cost of LCD screens with ever increasing pixel densities and brightness output down making MSLA possible.

We can for our purposes of this post skip over the next half decade. Suffice to say that things improved every year. It’s worth checking out this 2018 discussion on the state of 3D printing hosted by the Youtuber 3D Printed Tabletop if you want to understand this ‘middle period’.

If a resin printer cost $2.5k in 2014 – what can you get for your money on Kickstarter today?

In October 2021 the ELEGOO Jupiter was funded to the tune of $4.7 Million dollars. At a discounted backer price of $740.

The printer boasts 6K LCD screen resolution and has a print bead size of 12.8″. Meaning you can print absolutely massive a models / objects or lots of models all at the same time).

This machine in all respects is an absolute monster, very impressive.

But we should instead turn to its older, smaller, more important cousin.


2020

The Elegoo Mars 2 launched in 2020 at a $300 price point. Cheaper than a games console.

It’s to my mind one of the most important pieces of hardware to know about right now to get a sense of where 3D printing is going in the coming decade. (See Signals section)

Since most of this post is about wargames miniatures specifically; it would be remiss of me not to note that the hobby/industry had an absolutely massive year in 2020. I wonder would could have happened to cause people to have lots of free time, spent largely indoors, and find painting little plastic models meditative and relaxing? ๐Ÿค”

That said of course, wargaming is still a nerdy enough hobby to get you publicly ridiculed for admitting being a fan on the UK’s biggest television chat show. No matter how famous you are.

A man famous for dressing up a superhero getting ripped for painting toy soldiers in 2021 ๐Ÿคจ

In one of those surreal months (which I assume also happens in other product niches) almost all the wargames Youtubers I follow received the ELEGOO Mars 2 Pro for sponcon review in 2020.

Many of them had never used, owned or thought about owning a 3D printer before. Turns out almost without exception – all love them loved it.

Luke from Geek Gaming Scenics in the video above for example makes it clear that using the Mars 2 convinced him that 3D resin printing was a viable consumer technology. He now makes videos on the subject all the time.

The ELEGOO Mars 2 is currently ยฃ250 with a discount voucher on Amazon – though I have seen it on-sale for as low as ยฃ180 (~$250) !!! High resolution 3D printing is now in the home for less than the cost of a last minute return train ticket from London to Nottingham.

It’s worth returning to that 2012 statement from Games Workshop.

Asked whether the company might ever consider selling its own digital 3D designs, he said: “That would be nearly impossible, unless the customer had plastic, metal and resin casting equipment.”

In just 8 years the ‘nearly impossible‘ has become ‘completely possible’.


2021

If 2020 was the year that 3D resin printing arrived then 2021 was the year the 3D printing and table top wargames ecosystem exploded.

In May of this year I took a screenshot every promoted story I received on Instagram advertising 3D digital files of toy soldiers for home printing.

As you can see from the image there’s: Patreon’s, Kickstarters, Online Stores, and more.

Want a model for your historical wargame? A Dungeons and Dragons game? Replacement pieces for Monopoly? Lost a piece of your model plane? It’s all now right there at your fingertips to download and print at home.

Of course, if you don’t want to buy lots of models, or just have a single model in mind and can’t find exactly what you are looking for – you can find a model closest to what you want and kitbash a bunch of models together in Blender (more on this later).

OR you can head over to heroforge.com and design your own model in your browser and receive a week later it in the post.

@justmakesstuff

I must at this point shout out Justin Coquillon AKA @justmakesstuff. Justin, kindly gave an hour of his time over Zoom in late August 2021. He spoke to me all about his 3D printing, tabletop wargaming, digital kitbashing hobby.

Look how cool his models are! All kitbashed digitally, printed and painted at home.

Amongst the things we chatted was about how he got (back) into painting table top miniatures during lockdown 2020. “I was getting into painting larger things like busts and stuff, and I had a few friends online who would occasionally, for the cost of resin, send me a larger scale print.

He got his 3D printer in February 2021 [it was] “182 pounds when I bought it, I’d been looking at them and they were 300, 350, just few weeks before”. Initially he was just focused on the printing things. 3D printing is almost a whole hobby by itself. Lots of details have to be attended to and the learning curve for quality prints is one of experience and practice.

As his hobby continued Justin fell back into the Warhammer: “I’d been buying models on eBay for cheap and snapping the heads off, stripping the paint and then buying a pith helmet and heads from Anvil Industry and sticking them on. I’d worked out that with a good batch of models off e-bay and buying the heads, was about ยฃ1.50 a trooper.

Then I realised ‘oh’ I have this thing I bought to print busts and large models with… Maybe I could print some heads.

So I found a set of heads online and that was a game changer. Then I started to find that there were whole modular infantry kits (…) So I just started exploring those. It’s very much just a mix and match. I’m just mashing a couple of STLs together most of the time.”

Big thanks to @justmakesstuff for his time and insights on our call.


3D printing at home at the level of quality the consumer printers have reached has opened up so much possibility for model makers, kitbashers and artists of all kinds.

The cost of printing models however (given the price of the printer) is still something up for debate given the cost of entry. But one bottle of resin is about the same price as a box of 10 models from a major manufacture the overall cost savings compound pretty quickly!

Market Places

Discussion in my part of social media this year has of course been dominated by NFTโ€™s and the apparent ridiculousness of JPG sales.

Meanwhile quietly, market places to buy and sell 3D digital objects have been maturing. cgtrader passed its 1 millionth user a year ago.

Market places for digital .obj & .stl files for 3D printing are essentially the same market places that serve the video games, advertising and VFX industries. Whilst different hubs/sites cater for different users, most files are can be used across multiple contexts with some finessing.

Head over to cgtrader, 3D export, TurboSquid, Cults 3D, or Thingiverse, and browse around to get an idea of the scope of whats for sale or free download.

The latter are more oriented to the printing market, selling pre-supported STLs for printing. The former provide high, medium and low poly versions of digital objects for virtual environments and prodcution.

CGtrader is a market place where table top miniature designers can sell access to their work alongside artists who create kitbash spaceship collections that end up in Netflix TV shows.

Myminifactory

Then there is the UK’s myminifactory.com. Based in Brick Lane, London, UK.

My Mini Factory caters exclusively for table top miniature designers and the audience(?), consumers who want to print their work.

MMF is not only a marketplace focused on 3D printing tabletop miniatures a store front.
It also provides integrations to manage Kickstarter pledges and the infrastructure to distribute/claim 3D files after a campaign ends.

I also believe they have a Patreon integration as well as offering their own subscription services directly on the site.

MMF is a powerhouse in the 3D printed miniature space. It’s an important ecosystem and IMO represents the fullest expression of whats going on in this space.

I remember speaking with a member of the MMF team way back in 2013/14 at a social event. I have been totally blown away by where they are at 2021. I’d love to go visit their office at some point and chat about where they see all this going.

Creator Economies

There seems to bee three main ways that artists currently make money in the 3D printed table top community. Similar how most people trapped in the #supportnet make a living too.

Kickstarter campaigns to fund an entire miniature collections, Patreon’s that drop files for new models every month fleshing out a collection / army of models, or selling digital files directly.

  • Kickstarter campaigns generally fund single (or group of) artists to produce a complete collection of around 30 unique models. Rewards will range from access to a subset of complete total, the whole collection, or offer discount codes for previous models made by the artist(s). Some campaigns will partner with 3D printing workshops (see scaling up below) so those folks without printers can order printed models. 
  • Patreon. These of course provide more stable income for the artists. They are usually priced at about $15 a month. Supporting a creator will mean access to a release of 5-10 STL files monthly moving forward. Some artists will also offer access to the complete historical collection of models by them after one month (which is a stonking good deal). Or immediately at higher levels of support.
  • Lastly, of course you can sell single model files directly on MMF or similar.

It’s interesting to see the types of licences that these artists uses on their files. If you work in NFT / Smart contract space its worth thinking about too.

Some files are licensed as creative commons, with attribution, no derivatives, others are licensed with derivatives, non-commercial. Others are licensed as all rights reserved, but with specific allowance for derivatives if it’s for home use. Others say no derivatives at all. 

In addition to license types, thereโ€™s a whole rabbit hole of the types of files on offer.

Most 3D printable table top models if bought by my mini factory or patrons come โ€˜pre supportedโ€™.

Whilst objects are printed layer by layer (either by MSLA or FDM), some parts of a model may droop without material holding them up during the printing process. Pre-supported models essentially mean that scaffolds are added to support the model which can then easily be removed after printing.

Some models – especially super high detail ones for use in virtual environments – are designed without printing in mind and come without scaffolds. These models will require the person printing to add them themselves. I understand that this is more of an art than a science. But free tools like meshmixer from Autodesk will get anyone 90% of the way there with just one click. 

Whatโ€™s interesting to me is that there is a huge market for digital objects at all.

What a world we live in where artists can make a living from designing toy soldiers for people to print at home.

Youtubers like Lukeswayoflooking document their whole design process and serve as inspiration for others to give it a go.

The skills required to learn Blender or Maya etc are all transferable from the virtual to the printable.

As the creation of virtual objects and worlds is becoming a key element of online entrainment. From Vtubers, to Roblox, people are growing up in a world where the skills required to manipulate the virtual are just accessible, simple and available. I think about Myspace’s low key introduction of HTML and CSS to a whole generation and wonder what the world of the Metaverse is actually going to be like.

Nothing like Mark’s metaverse vision I’m sure.

Return of Small Studios

With the rise of Patreon and crowdfunding, indie TTRPGs and table top wargames are being created, made and released and played by more people than ever before.

We are almost coming full circle. For almost all of table top wargaming and the history of toy soldiers, the design and production of models were done by boutique, small scale miniature manufacturers. In early days of Dungeons of Dragons this was especially so.

As an aside, if you haven’t read Playing at the World: A History of Simulating Wars, People and Fantastic Adventures, from Chess to Role-Playing Games or any of Jon Peterson’s books on the early history of D&D – I can’t recommend them enough.The importance of boutique miniature manufacturer’s catalogues and newsletters/zines has a whole fascinating history of its own.

We are, I think, after a few decades of big names selling rulebooks and miniatures as complete sets/systems, returning to the kind of miniature manufacturer agnostic world.

For example: The recent smash hit game Gaslands is based around kitbashing post apocalyptic hot wheels cars bought from the pound shop. There are also loads of 3D printable parts online designed for the game sold under an interesting licence .

Gaslands designer Mike Hutchinson recently released another game called A Billion Suns.

Like his previous game, it launched without miniatures. But people were encouraged to model/print their own. Hutchinson chose to licence people to design and sell models for the game under the condition of becoming an ‘Interstellar Merchant

Becoming an Interstellar Merchant

Becoming an Interstellar Merchant is easy: just support the Planet Smasher Games Patreon at the relevant $4 a month level. You are a Friend of Gaslands for as long as you are a current Patreon backer. Iโ€™ve also added a โ€œFriends of Planet Smasher Gamesโ€ discounted bundle tier if you wish to produce and sell accessories for any of my games.

https://www.patreon.com/planetsmashergames

Becoming A Billion Suns Interstellar Merchant does not constitute a licensing agreement for the A Billion Suns IP. By becoming A Billion Suns Interstellar Merchant, your accessories are not โ€œofficialโ€, but it basically means that weโ€™re cool, you are free to use the brand name โ€œA Billion Sunsโ€ in your listings and keep any money you make from selling your accessories, and you can advertise through the official website, Facebook groups etc.

Interstellar Merchants

Check out all the awesome Interstellar Merchants here.

There are now also rising companies like One Page Rules. OPR release all their rulebooks for free as PDFs. They have also begun to partner with 3D artists to release printable STL files for OPR’s game factions.

OPR at first glance seem to skirt very close to the wind / line when it comes of trademark and copyright vis a vis Games Workshop’s IP. But from interviews with the creator he seems confident that space space battle brothers, robot legions and wormhole demons is sufficiently generic sci-fi to not get legally blasted from existence.

OPR is also interesting to me as a contemporary business. Essentially a company with a Website comprised of three links:

Talk about lean.

Scaling Up

The cost of manufacturing has always been the barrier to entry for games in this space – injection moulding and even small scale silicone casting doesnโ€™t come cheap.

But as explained above, we are in a whole new world. Not only can consumers print the game’s rules at home, but also the models too.

Alongside the advances in 3D print technologies, there have also been big advances in small scale silicone mould and small batch manufacture. In addition to Tabletop Wargaming companies, the market for machines that can do small batch quantity manufacturing has also been driven by a similar explosion in popularity of the Board Gaming.

There is currently huge demand for relatively small batch production and manufacture capacity for resin parts. It make sense for models and figures, token and laying pieces to be made locally given the challenges that creators face in securing small batch production of boxed games, or miniatures in China even before the pandemic.

I’ve been reading cardboardedison.tumblr for a while and it regularly links to useful advice and breakdowns for creators in this regard.

SIOcast

There are now machines like Siocast which also has been advertised to me on instagram lol. The advertising algorithm clearly thinks Iโ€™m interested in small scale manufacturing fo wargames models and its right – I am!

SioCast Master moulds are made from 6 – 8k 3D printed resin parts at 0.01 layer resolution and production quality moulds are made using a silicone elastomer.

SioCast is essentially a small scale injection moulding machine that uses a thermoplastic. Producing high quality models in a fraction of the time that resin printers would. Whats more the thermoplastic used by SioCast machines is recyclable.

Whilst high quality 3D printing at home with resin is now possible – with the resolution of the parts/objects they can print increasing every year – it hadnโ€™t occurred to me until I saw the SioCast machine that large volume/scale manufacturing in this space using 3D printers would still be slow and expensive (if only for the amount of time it takes a 3D printer to run AND the amount of print failures can occur regardless of how experienced one is.)

It is really interesting to me anyway that a line can be drawn from the RepRatโ€™s promise of distributed manufacturing, to a small scale injection moulding machine that can fit in a garage, or maker space. 

In addition to this sort of small scale studio manufacturing with SioCast, there is also a growing cottage service industry. For example companies like Forsters Foundry offer 3D printed models from partnered artists in the UK.

Digital Kitbashing

I’ve already mentioned heroforge.com. The tool that lets you to design your own custom table top model in browser for your next D&D campaign and have the printed model shipped right to your door.

During the summer this year I wanted to try kitbashing some models for myself.

Iโ€™ve been learning Unreal Engine and Blender since the summer. I’ve also been playing with Adobe Medium learning to natively sculpt in VR.

Inspired, I wanted to try and kitbash my own models. So I downloaded some cc-nc-sa licensed Monopose skeletons and some cc licensed medieval weapons from Thingiverse.

Once I had a rough grasp of Adobe Medium I set about kitbashing some models of my own. Importing the files into Adobe Medium was all very simple and the process of cutting up and reposing models in VR is very intuitive.

LOL look at the wayward blender cube when I was converting the STL to OBJ file.

In the two videos below you can see me messing with the weapon for the Skeleton warrior.

Each video was a separate session. Here’s some more in progress images because who doesn’t like documentation?

I talked about this in a podcast, but teenage me has had his mind blown.

The idea that I can make my own models, kitbash 3D files in VR, tidy them up in Blender and then get them printed out has been a revelation. I KNOW if I was a teenager right now with plenty of time this is what I’d be doing with my life. I’d be locked inside 3D modelling software sculpting, making and kitbashing every weekend and after school every day.

Actually tying it out has opened up not just whatโ€™s possible, but what is possible for ME to achieve myself, in my own home, with very little experience at all. I’m incredibly lucky and stoked to have all this at my fingertips.

It turns out however that after about 10 hours of following basic Blender tutorials on youtube, its much quicker and easier to do this short of thing there rather than in VR. But thats not the point.

Combined with the ongoing Puppet Project, 2022 I think is going to be a very DIY / learning / practical skills year for me. I’ve really interested in making / doing some shit!

Signals Beyond

Beyond tabletop miniatures and board game tokens I also want to note that consumer MSLA 3D printers like the Mars2 are also becoming new lynchpin technologies for the DIY manufacture of Printed circuit boards.

One of the biggest bottle necks for the design and prototyping of hardware is the time and expense bottle neck around having a PCB made and returned. A drone project team I worked with a few years ago were using RushPCB for their boards in the UK who offered a 24 hour turn around time from payment to shipping.

I should note that the example video above of using a MSLA printer to prototype PCBs at home/in a lab only demonstrates 1 circuit layer (in contrast to up to 32 in commercial prototyping). I am extremely interested in how PCB and 3D printing is going to evolve in 2022.

A hugely important development in the Open Hardware / Arduino scene.

I’d like to speak to anyone experimenting with putting exotic UV cured materials into 3D printers. There are so many epoxys as resins out there who knows whats possible when used off book.

Printing Out The Internet in the 2020’s

  • Extending the trends beyond table top wargames and boardgames: The collectibles business in general is going to be in for a tough ride in the next decade.
  • As these technologies evolve the borders between digital / physical / metaverse are going to be quite porous.
    • Cosplay and custom costume jewellery is an area I may look into next year.
  • I already have written about the Iron Vertex creator guild for vTubers. But…
    • Demand for virtual objects is going to continue to increase.
    • Demand for custom virtual gear, worlds, and environments is going to increase.
  • Printing out the Internet is going to be a really weird creative space.
  • Miniature agnostic war/board/games supported by community creators/fandoms is going to grow. Real big IP’s may come from this space.
  • How long until major companies that produce miniatures and collectables end up having online file stores?
    • NFTs, authentication and file signing is a really interesting space here for semi-DRM. prof of file ownership etc.
  • I need to buy a house just so I can have a 3D printer LMAO.
  • I expect 2022 will be a year for really big copyright battles over 3D printed virtual objects.
    • Maybe ripped right from video games? or perhaps direct film assets.
  • Popular Front’s 2020 Documentary about 3D printed guns in Europe is nuts.
    • The cost of Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) is rapidly falling. Expect to hear a lot about 3D printed metal parts in the 2020’s
    • I wouldn’t steal a car but I might download and print parts for one.
  • 3D printing beyond consumer technology is rapidly evolving. Combined with developments in Synthetic biology things are going to get very weird. Skin, body parts, organs, etc

Printing out the internet is also a subject i’m interested in general.

In 2022 I’m going to start a physical newsletter sent via snail mail 4 times a year to people subscribed to thejaymo.net at ยฃ5 monthly and above.

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About Author

Jay Springett is a Solarpunk, and consultant strategist, currently specialising in the distributed web, metaverse, and world running. He is currently writing his first public book: Land as Platform.

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