Thursday, December 27, 2018

Adventures in 3d Printing (2018 Edition)

Back in 2012, I printed my first ever 3d model via and reviewed the results in the 2017 blog post linked here.  With the proliferation of home 3d printing in the years since and the introduction of the first truly affordable (<$500 USD) quality resin printer this year, I decided it was time to re-evaluate the Shapeways options.  I tweaked some 3d files (relearning the process by brute force trial and error yet again!) including a model similar but not exactly the same as the previous one and printed it out at the current highest quality possible which is one step above the 2012 equivalent.  I apologize in advance for the long article but I felt that it would be best to post this in one go instead of breaking it up.

As you can see, I upscaled the model as my original scaling was meant to match the old WOTC Star Wars prepaint on the far right.  I was surprised by how small the original 2012 fig actually ended up so this time I increased the height from 37mm to 49mm thinking that it would be too big.  Instead, it's a comfortable size that fits most other scif I miniatures instead of dwarfing them like I expected.  Whereas before I exaggerated most features by extruding them out, I hoped that this time the larger size plus smaller printing layer height would allow exactly modelled is printing.  The large alien turned out just fine but the two others are very frail (especially the female alien shown below) and I wish I had "thickened" them a bit for durability .  Additionally, my tweaking this time around let me actually pose and combine the miniature with the weapons instead of using a clumsy sprue/base system to (unsuccessfully) keep it all together.

The Good

The most noticeable change since 2012 is the decrease in price likely largely brought about by the downward pressure caused by affordable home printers.  A friend of mine, Albertorius, got the Anycubic Photon earlier this year and his results exceed the highest Shapeways quality possible back in 2012 (Frosted Ultra Detail with a layer height of 29 microns).  I paid $10 more for 3 figs at a higher quality (16 micron layer height) than I did for the previous order of a single smaller figure.  The quality also is notably improved with individual polygon facets visible in the printing this time around as shown below on the chest with flash photography.  The facial features are recognizable but shallow so in retrospect I do wish I had extruded them out as I suspect some of the features will disappear with even thin succesive primer/paint/wash layers.

The tools on the website have also improved and you can now specify the model orientation in the print bed whereas before it was determined by the company not for max printing quality but rather for the most densely packed/efficient print run.  Unlike with home printers that use a scaffolding system to prevent failure (as shown here in my friend's Photon home printer), the fine plastic detail quality utilizes a solid bed of waxy support material that is then melted off with a solvent.  While it doesn't require any clipping, it does mar the surface somewhat leaving a rougher texture.  Last time, my model had the support border line run literally straight down the front of the model (shown below) leaving one side smooth and the other rough.  Admittedly, it didn't end up showing through after some careful sanding and painting but I was still concerned about it this time around.  I'm pleased to report that I was able to both successfully orient my model to minimize it and that the surface effect was less prominent this time where it did appear.  I apologize for the quality of the pictures but the opaque resin was difficult to photograph as it was too dark with no flash and the model would largely disappear with flash.

The Bad

The main complaint that I have is that I could have gotten a slightly better quality model for a bit lower price had I ordered over the summer when I finished the model instead of waiting for a free shipping sale that never actually came.  Over the summer, they switched the materials classification from Frosted Extreme Detail previously available to the Smoothest Fine Detail Plastic that I ordered.  Whereas the layer height (which they stopped listing at all on their website!) is still the same at 16 microns, the listed accuracy is 2-3x worse.  Now, to put that in perspective, the new worse accuracy still amounts to at most a 0.25mm deviation for my model size but it's still technically worse than before.  Additionally, they raised the price of my model by about 10% in October meaning that I paid more for that slightly worse model.  I'm still quite happy with what I got and it is a noticeable improvement since 2012 but it deserved mention for completeness' sake.

While the online tools are improved as mentioned above, the nitty gritty details on the website have decreased leading to worse transparency for the consumer as quality settings can be quietly changed behind the scenes without most users ever knowing.  Simply finding out the layer height of the highest quality setting involved me posting to their forum (no response), tweeting at them (also ignored), and then emailing customer service to actually get the information.

Finally, it did take a almost an entire month to get my order after paying.  This year, they introduced priority printing in addition to the expedited shipping that previously existed, neither of which I paid extra for.  Some of the delay is in all likelihood attributable to me ordering during the Christmas rush but the long lead time might deter some folks from ordering.  For me, I was comfortable getting a good deal while letting others pay for the faster service as I consider that a comfortable middle ground if not taken to the extreme.

The Ugly

Again, not too much to report here other than one miscast on the large alien figure.  As shown in the picture below, his gun is supposed to have multiple extended protrusions around the barrel.  Those apparently did not print out or attach correctly despite passing the automated and manual checks.  The automatic check did add a few gobs of extra material here (for example visible on the front surface of the hammer) but they're not as obvious in person as I initially feared.  The other two aliens printed out flawlessly with razor thin protrusions like weapon fins and head spikes surviving intact (although we'll see if they last long in use or storage!).  I've contacted the support team about reprinting just the large alien due to the miscast weapon and will update this post when that process eventually concludes.  As it is currently between Christmas and New Year's at the time of writing this post, I suspect it may take more than a few days to sort it all out.

 The Verdict
Overall, I'd say that 3d Printing has definitely reached the point where it is doable both from an ease of use as well as quality standard.  Whereas previously I rated the quality at about board game plastics quality, I'd say it has reached roughly the same quality as well done mass produced plastic kits from about a decade or so ago.  If you're not interested or able to invest in the new generation of $400-500 high quality resin home printers, Shapeways is a viable alternative for sculpts that you just can't get elsewhere (as long as the detail depth is adjusted for 3d printing and you're not in a rush) and the price is also lower than some of the more recent GW kits per model.  A friend let me know about another service that uses home 3d print farms so an evaluation of that option will hopefully be the next article in this series at some point next year.

As always, I'm keen to hear any questions or comments so feel free to leave them below.   I hope everyone had a merry Christmas in 2018 and will have a happy New Year as well in a few days!


  1. Susan has bought Tiertime UP! Mini 2 ES, which she is using to print components for her audio cartridge design. At some point I've been told "we" shall be doing components for my CASE-2X "Dog" combat armour suit. But don't hold your breath for as and when that will appear.

  2. Cool! I'll be looking forward to the eventual blog post review then. I wasn't aware of that printer and just looked it up. I find it fascinating that wood is listed as an available printing material for that printer!

  3. Thanks for doing this, very informative. With the Anycube Photon now under $500, it really does not take many Shapeways orders to make it cheaper to buy the printer...

    1. I'm glad it was helpful. I'll actually have an update in a few weeks as I heard back from Shapeways about my miscast (spoiler: they were very helpful and I'm getting a couple of new figs almost free). The Photon is an absolutely phenomenal deal if you've got the technical know how to keep it printing and working. Like with anything you do at home, the outcome and the cost are all on you (materials like resin, maintenance like replacing the FEP film, fixing broken parts, etc). I could see others who just want to upload and pay choosing to stick with shapeways for a low hassle approach with similar results if you only print occasionally. If you're printing frequently (like even monthly or especially weekly), then definitely get a resin printer like the Photon.

    2. At roughly $12 for a cruiser sized ship on Shapeways (in 1/3788 scale) it would take only 43 successful prints for the Photon to be cheaper. The key is successful, since there definitely seems to be a bit of craft about it, and as you say maintenance.