Thursday, 26 September 2013

3d printing miniatures at the TCT Show

The TCT Show had all kinds of amazing 3d printers, with everything from the aeronautics to the hobby market represented. While a lot of the show concerned enormous, super-expensive, metallic powder sintering monster machines, there were also a few smaller-scale printers and some rather interesting print-bureau services on offer too.

One of the more ingenious 3d printers was from mCor and instead of using expensive metal powder, or difficult to handle plastics, it used readily available - and cheap - printer material: paper!

The printer was like an xy vinyl plotter with a rising bed: a sheet of pre-printed paper was loaded onto the bed and the drag knife cut out the outine of the pre-printed shape. The head then applied a series of micro-dots of glue over the layer and pulled a second sheet on top. After this, the bed rose up (pressing the two sheets of paper together) and then dropped down again before the cutting head cut through the second sheet of paper.

By exposing the printed edges of each layer, a full-colour, 0.1mm accurate, 3d model came straight off the machine. As this kind of technology becomes popular, expect plenty more "3d-wedding" photos in future:

One of the nice things about the models off this 3d printer was that they had substance. A lot of times, 3d printed models feel a bit light-weight and flimsy, because the printer is trying to use the minimum amount of (relatively expensive) printing material. With this printer, each model has the same density as wood or mdf. For the models at the show, some were coated with superglue (to seal the edges) which made them very hard-wearing and robust.

The mCor paper 3d printer is an excellent layer-based full-colour 3d printer!

Throughout the afternoon, the inhouse band played along on their 3d printed guitars. We agreed that their "phat tunez" weren't much to write home about, but the actual instruments looked amazing

a complex internal structure was revealed through the stars and stripes of the guitar body

noted for their powerful sustain, thanks to a dense solid wood body, this Gibson Les Paul-a-like might not sound as good, but it looked pretty cool

There were lots of laser-sintering printers on show, many demonstrating the wide range of colours that could be used for printing. Many 3d printers demonstrated how complex and intricate their designs could be. The lasered pieces looked really nice - but when you looked beyond the complex structure, the final finish was still not quite glassy-smooth (though very impressive, all the same!)

There were quite a few companies offering print bureau services. This means that instead of paying tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds for a printer, you could simply email them your 3d objects and have the printed item posted back - a service similar to Shapeways or Ponoko; it's nice to know that there are so many alternatives, and interesting to see the many different finishes available, based on the machine doing the printing.

One printing company that looked particularly interesting was Luma3d print, who were offering laser 3d printing from 10p per square centimetre (cm3). This looked like a really interesting way of getting relatively cheap, relatively good standard, master shapes for mould-making, without breaking the bank.
Their models still had the slightly grainy appearance of most laser-sinter printed objects, but they can print from ABS which, apparently, can be sanded and polished to a really high gloss finish.

Interestingly, there were a few companies demonstrating the quality of their 3d printers by printing war gaming miniatures. There were two or three of particular note:

Solidscape were the first company we spotted with miniatures in their display cases

This little monster was smaller than the GW standard 28mm miniatures, yet had some incredible detail on it:

The Envisontec printer apparently used a wax-based compound and is commonly used in dental practices for prototyping sets of gnashers!

Their miniatures were incredibly detailed with no discernible "banding" or layering as often seen, even on the best laser-sintered objects

Envisontec were another company demonstrating 3d-printed miniatures. Even at the smallest size (the miniature on the right is smaller than the 28mm tabletop standard) the details were pretty amazing.

If anything, the details from this printer were even better than the previous one. This insanely small galleon has rigging on it, less than 10 microns thick. This whole model is smaller than the size of a fingernail!

Towards the end of the show, we got to speak with Gary Miller from IPFL who had some dinosaur heads with the tiniest little teeth imaginable to come off a 3d printer!

Gary went on to explain that his company produced many of the master models for Games Workshop miniatures, and had re-trained many of the GW sculptors into using ZBrush and similar virtual modelling tools, to produce their latest model lines. Maybe this explains why only recently we were asking why Citadel/GW miniatures were of much better quality than many of their rivals!

The print quality of the dinosaur teeth was unbelievable. Their printing can produce models with layers just 6 microns thick.

Interestingly, IPFL offer bureau printing services and Gary explained that an average-sized GW miniature would cost about £25 for printing. Only up until very recently did GW have all their miniatures printed by an outside agency - until they saved up enough, I guess, and bought one of these very printers themselves!

It seems that designing your own characters in CAD and using a 3d printing bureau has actually become a viable method of producing your own miniatures - even a relatively small production run could quickly cover the cost of printing and casting materials. Perhaps this is why we're seeing an explosion in miniature-based games on Kickstarter of late!

Of course, the busiest stand at the whole show was the RepRap stand (or, as some wags described it, Hobby Corner)

The RepRap and RepRap pro were on hand to give demonstrations and were busy printing keyrings and trinkets for people to take away. Disappointingly, there was no-one selling the more exotic abs/pla filament. There were some interesting colours and peculiar effects on display, so it was a shame they couldn't be bought there and then. Though Steve did manage to blag some samples of metallic gold and electric blue filament, so hopefully he'll be able to print some demo objects on his RepRap at home and bring them along to BuildBrighton tonight......

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