3D Printing – First Steps

I have been interested in 3D printing for quite a while. The concept of being able to make your own models has always interested me, but the traditional options (such as hand sculpting or resin casting) has always been out of reach, either through a lack of time to practise or from living in rented accommodation without space. However, with the rise of affordable resin printers and actually moving to a property that has multiple rooms, I decided that maybe now was the time to play around with something.

It has now been several months of playing around. Here are my thoughts and comments.

FDM vs Resin

The first step was picking the style of printer I was wanting to use. When most people think “3d printer” it’s the filament models that spring to mind. These things work from the floor up, depositing a layer of heated plastic before moving up and then applying another layer. The alternative is Resin. Instead of building right way up, resin printing works upside down, dipping the build plate into a tank of resin, using a UV lamp and LCD screen to set specific points before pulling it off the floor of the resin tank and advancing. Nerdtonic does a very good video showing the differences and I found it very helpful in understanding how the two systems work.

After doing some reading up, the way to go for miniatures printing (the stuff I’d focus on) is Resin. Layers are much harder to distinguish giving a smoother finish and giving you a better level of detail, ideal for printing figures for painting. Filament printers are not without their uses for wargamers though – they are much fast and can handle much larger models with fewer issues, so perfect for printing terrain without having to reassemble afterwards.

My Machines

So what did I get? In the end I went for the Elegoo Mars Pro resin printer and the Mercury Plus cleaning/curing station. These two devices are designed to work together, letting you easily transfer finished prints from the printer straight into the cleaning process with limited handling of the uncured resin.

The other reason for going for these devices were some of the features of the Mars Pro. It’s in a reasonable price range, the built-in airflow filter reduces the smell of resin fumes (vital for a rented property) and it’s not the most recent product so spare parts are available and experiences gained by the community. The newer Mars 2 Pro and Mars 2 swap the LCD panel used to cure the resin for a monochrome variant, increasing the speed of curing and extending its life span. There is also the Saturn which is the same basic device but bigger and with a few additional features (like networking). If I had waited a little bit, then maybe a monochrome device might have been a better option. However, I’m not needing such rapid production speeds that a mono provides – 3+ hours for a bed full of models isn’t too bad at the moment. If I was moving to small scale production (such as buying a merchant license) then I’d either need a mono or upgrade to multiple printers.

The Overall Experience So Far

I’m going to be a longer post going through things step by step (from sourcing models to painting up the finished product). But for now, this is my overall experience of 3D printing.

The biggest thing – 3D printing is exciting as hell and a great addition to the hobby, giving you access to more models and conversion pieces. But, it is a hobby all in itself. These devices are not quite consumer grade. There is a lot of fucking around to do with printers, dialling in settings to match your resin, printer and environmental settings all while trying to maximise quality and minimise wasted material.

I also think that, as part of this, support for these devices is mostly community driven. There are lots of Facebook groups filled with people offering advice and support to newcomers (as well as lots of newcomers who haven’t used a search tool before). If something then goes wrong, you don’t have a fix with 24 hours like you might have with other consumer electronics (unless you’re boxing the printer back up to return to the place you bought it from). With Elegoo and other 3D printer makers being based in China and Taiwan, any replacement parts above and beyond the usual bits (like LCD screens) will require air freighting in from across the world. I’ve found it to be incredibly frustrating when the devices go wrong.

I also think that we haven’t reached a point when models are 100% download and print with no issues. Even where models are listed as “Pre-supported” or “Ready to print”, what this means varies from company to company, with some needing you to adjust your resin settings (especially when using unusual supports). There is also a massive amount of variation in quality. Just because you can produce a 3D model that can be printed doesn’t make it a good model. I have lots of issues with models that have been posed in ways that are obvious that gravity hasn’t played a part in how the model actually looks. This isn’t an issue with 3d printing specifically (there are lots of CAD miniatures with the same flaws) but is definitely more common among the 101 patreons offering 3d models.

I appreciate this is a lot of doom and gloom but to roll back to first point. 3D Printing is exciting as hell. Custom parts up until recently required either extensive kitbashing/green stuff or hoping that someone else would make them. With a 3D printer, you can easily get your hands on STLs (the most common file format used to transmit models around) and print them off at a fraction of the cost of hunting down the exact bit. In addition, there is no concern about ruining an expensive part. Worst case, you spend a few pennies and reprint it. You can even do tweaks to it that would be much harder with real parts, such as flipping parts or merging STL files together

It’s also unlocked a greater variety of models and manufacturers. As someone who likes ultramodern wargaming, we’re never going to get the same level of support as Fantasy, Sci-fi or WW2. However, you can easily support a fringe genre of wargaming through 3D printing as the manufacturers doesn’t have to spend production money, other than making sure the models they have made actually print.

The final point is that you can get some really impressive models out of the resin printers now. A lot of people still think about the filament printers if you say the words “3D Printing” but after my first successful print I was blown away with what I managed to get from the Skull Forge models you see above. The quality does really depend on the model and getting the settings, and you’ll never match something like Games Workshop produces with an enthusiast grade 3D printer but you can get damn close especially if your painting style is like mine and doesn’t rely too heavily on the tiny surface details.

This is really a jumping off point for 3D printing. I’ll be doing more posts as I go along, especially looking

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