3D Printing – The Process Part 1

In my last post, I covered the basic setup of my devices. In my next few posts, we’re going to take a look at the process of actually printing the model. The first will cover all the stuff that happens before we start getting messy.

Getting Models

The first stage of 3D printing (after the initial setup) is of course, getting something to print. There are a few different ways to get hold of STLs (the file format most commonly used by slicing programs).

Make your Own!

Errrr… okay this is WAY too much for a single blog post. 3D modelling is a whole career into itself, with a selection of tools and methods to get into. Its something I’m interested in (I have some things I’d like to make such as conversion parts for my Sisters of Battle still in the box) but we don’t have time in this post.

Download them for Free!

There are lots of STL files available for free online. Google is a good starting point, although it will quickly lead you into STL search engines such as Yeggi or STLFinder. You’ll also find free STLs on other sites such as the classic Thingiverse.

But here is the thing – you really do get what you pay for. There may be some incredible work given away for free (often due to them being fan-work of copyrighted content) but a lot of the time you’ll find 3d files made by amateurs and uploaded for fun. Also don’t expect them to be pre-supported so some extra work will be needed to get them ready.

Purchase them!

If you’re willing to spend the money, you can also go and buy STLs. There are several sites for it (such as MyMiniFactory) as well as people using Gumroad to create their own stores. I’m a keen fan of SkullForge Studios, who make a great set of figures who are… inspired by Disney properties.

Prices are massively variable. Some people go bargain basement on the models, while several will charge a lot more per figure than other companies that will produce the physical object. An important thing to remember when considering price is to remember that when buying an STL, there is no limitation on how many copies you can print.

Another option for single purchase is keeping an eye on Kickstarter. Many 3D moidel sellers will start off with a Kickstarter run, often with a few extra goodies that won’t be available later. These Kickstarters are also often cheaper than they would be at retail, so if you want the entire thing, they can be great value for money. However, like with all Kickstarters, make sure you trust the people running it. A few STL files (including hopefully a free test one if you’re lucky) and some example prints are the bare minimum to look for.

Purchase them every Month!

The other way of buying STLs is to delve into the world of Patreon. For a monthly fee, you get a pack of models. Patreons usually have different levels, usually ranging from a single figure or taster pack at about £4 a month (+VAT), the complete release at around £7 – £8.50 a month (+VAT) and occasionally a premium package at £11.50 (+vat). All of these usually include a welcome pack, a few figures to whet the appetite for what you’re actually paying for.

Patreons vary in their contents – in some case it’s a different theme every month (Anvil Industries is the master of this, while still making them all work together thanks to their regiments system that came over from their resin range) while others slowly build up full ranges (Last Sword is slowly creating an alternative fantasy army range, including some glorious Elves while Turn Base is adding small packs of ultramodern figures).

I have… mixed feelings on Patreon bundles. In nearly every case, you are getting models for a steal (which can be seen when the models are re-sold in the store – Anvil charges £40 for bundles that are £11.50). However, this can play a little bit on fear of missing out, the worry about missing a good deal. You may also end up with a lot of crap you’ll never use if you don’t carefully keep an eye on what the Patreon is signed up for. But this can work both ways – maybe that random pack of Space Western parts might come in handy?

Preparing Models

So, you now have your file. What’s next?

Before you can start printing, you need to slice your STL files. Slicing is assembling the instructions that the 3D printer will use to actually set the resin and eventually produce the final product. However, there are a few other little elements to creating the slicing instructions.

But first of all, we need to talk about the program you’ll use. There are several options, but the most common is CHITUBOX. Much like anything, people will argue over the different variants, but CHITBOX is the one that Elegoo provides with the printer. It’s quite barebones and to the point – it’s whole aim is to get things working

Pre-Supported?

Some models are advertised as “Pre-Supported”. This usually means that the 3D file’s creator has deemed it should be able to be printed without any extra work from the user. Simply drag in, hit the slice button and save the file out.

Simple right?

Wrong.

This works like 10% of the time. It is one of my pet hates about 3D printing at the moment – people who see “pre-supported” “ready to print” or whatever and assume that no extra work is needed on their end. That haven’t realised that pre-supported assumes your printer has the correct settings.

Pre-supported varies from rock solid with barely any problems to a wing and prayer design to tick boxes. I find it best to assume pre-supported models are more of a… guideline. A starting point. A few people have managed to almost crack it, but there are plenty of other things to setup before it will just work.

Arrangment

If you have just a raw model file with no supports or optimisation then it’s time to get dirty. The first step is how best to arrange files on the print bed (the area shown as the rectangle above). It’s not just the actual positioning – it’s also the file rotation. The surface parallel with the print bed will be a little less detailed than the rest. A rough guide is to print figures at 30-45 degree rotation, although honestly there are plenty of people who print models standing up straight (as you can see above).

All3DP has an article talking about the how best to arrange items on the print bed. Although not 100% for printing miniatures, it’s a reasonable intro to all the concerns.

Supports

Assuming your model wasn’t pre-supported by the file creator, you’ll need to assemble the supports. These are elements used to help print overhangs in the model, reduce islands (unsupported areas to be printed) and generally giving more material to help keep items stable and strong. You can also create a “raft”, a large chunk of material that makes it easier to remove the finished model from the build plate without damaging it.

CHITUBOX has a very easy setup for adding supports, letting you auto-generate supports or add additional ones with a button press. As you can see above, the auto generate is not 100% perfect. But it does a reasonable job to begin with.

All3DP also has have a very interesting article explaining about supports, giving some advice on how best to use them.

Settings

No matter if your models are pre-supported or a random obj file pulled off the internet, once they are all setup you now have to choose the settings for your 3D printer. And this is the biggest pain in the ass of the whole thing.

You can get settings for different printers and resin combinations from most printer makers, even easier if you use the same brand for both. These settings are a good starting point but there are little things to tweak and look out for. Exposure times, lift speed, layer height and more – all of these variables will affect the end result.

I’m going to take a look at these in the next post (as well as some common flaws you might find based on these items being mis-set). But this screen will potentially be a familiar friend (or hated foe) when you need to get everything setup.

Slicing

Once your settings are sorted, it’s time to get slicing. Slicing turns a 3D model into layers of points. Each point is a location in space that is either inside the model or outside of it. This can then be used to create effectively a collection of images equal to each layer of the model. In the next post, we’ll talk again about how the process actually works and how these images are used.

This stage lets you preview those images (using the bar to see how the print progresses and do any final checks for islands that will automatically fail the print. Handily, it will also tell your a rough estimate of how much the print will cost in material as well as how long it will take. This time estimate is often incorrect but it’s a good rough idea, letting you see just how much using super tiny layers will affect how long it takes to get your model. Hitting spits out a ctb file, which can then be accessed by the printer and used to actually make the final thing.


At this stage, you’re all good to move your sliced file to your memory stick, put it in the printer and begin the process. Next time, we’ll cover what happens between the printing start and the final product hitting the table.

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