Printing plastic orcs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 July 2013, 3:57 am
At some point in the near future, when I need a plastic orc for a tabletop role-playing game I will be able to use some "Fantasy Army Generator" software to select the model of the orc and his weapons, and then print the miniature on a 3D printer. Theoretically I could already do that today, but there are still some practical problems.

The main problem is that the software "Fantasy Army Generator" doesn't exist. I would have to design the orc with a CAD/CAM software, and those aren't easy to use. And seeing how I can't even draw a decent orc, I don't see me designing one in 3D. Theoretically I could download a CAD file from somewhere on the internet, but it isn't as if Wizards of the Coast are already offering the complete Monster Manual as CAD files. Of the files that are available (and I didn't look), there is also the risk that some are in infringement of some copyright, for example copying the design of Warhammer orc boyz from Games Workshop.

At some point in the future there will be "3D copiers", scanning 3D objects with lasers to create a file that can then be printed. You can already see those sometimes in a mall where you can get your head scanned and transformed into a 3D portrait. But those 3D scanners are still farther out from common availability than 3D printers are. And again you'd be infringing copyright if you scanned an existing plastic orc you bought somewhere and copied it. Maybe some day Blizzard will sell you the CAD file of you World of Warcraft character for 3D printing, but right now they only sell you the figurine. If you look at reports about 3D printing on the internet you'll find people excitedly explaining how they can print replacements for broken plastic parts, e.g. a broken battery cover of an alarm clock. But unless you are really good at measuring dimensions in 3D, I guess it would take you days to get such a piece perfectly right, and then it still wouldn't match the color of your alarm clock.

If you only got a file somebody else made of an orc, and aren't able to modify it, the interest to print that orc isn't all that big. Games Workshop sells you a box with 50 orcs of different types for under $100, and other companies sell you plastic orcs for considerably less, down to $0.20 per plastic orc. 3D printers on are still over $1,000, although there are apparently self-build kits that sell for considerably less. And of course, who would have guessed it, companies are gouging customers on the printing materials. While the markup is less than for printer ink, 3D printer plastic filament sells for $30+ per kg, although the cost to make a kilogram of colored plastic filament is under $3. You would need to print a lot of plastic orcs before your printed orcs are cheaper than the mass-produced ones. Needless to say that printed plastic orcs have the same disadvantage as mass-produced ones: They are mono-colored and you still need to paint them to make them look good.

So today I'm still printing my orcs in 2D on cardboard in 1" squares and then use 1" self-adhesive felt pads (the kind you glue under chair legs) to give make them easier to handle and move over a battle-map. But maybe in a few years there will be that Fantasy Army Generator software, or a Monster Manual 3D printing software, and I might consider switching to 3D printing. If I don't have enough stuff to print to make buying a 3D printer worth while, there are also 3D-printing-on-demand services around. The main problem at the moment is getting from an image in your head to a CAD file of what you want.
Tobold's Blog

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