I first learned about 3D Printers around 12 years ago when projects started appearing on Kickstarter to fund new consumer 3D Printers. The idea of being able to take a design and create an object out of thin air seemed incredible. I wanted one but at the time the technology was nascent and most of what I heard was that configuring and maintaining the printer was a full-time concern in and of itself.
Back they were very temperamental; it took considerable technical skill to configure them properly and set them up to actually use them. There were tutorials on how to build your own using open source hardware design and code. 3D printing back then was a niche hobby.
Today, many of my concerns about purchasing and maintaining a 3D printer have been addressed. Also, as technology has advanced, new options have hit the market that improve the quality of the 3D prints, the speed of print time, and the cost of the printers.
Recently, I found a reason to finally dive into the world a 3D printing myself. My gaming hobby comes with a lot of miniatures. I mean a lot of miniatures. Most games I have purchased over the pandemic come with on average 30 and in some cases upwards of 50 miniatures in one box. Often, when I go all-in on a campaign, I get multiple boxes and the count goes upwards of 75 to 100. So, along with my gaming hobby I have contracted a miniature painting hubby. Buying minis individually can get expensive. There are a number of mini collections on the web that let you 3D print new minis for the cost of materials.
I found myself researching 3D printers and learning more about the technology and finally purchased my own. For those who are interested in learning more and possibly jumping into the hobby, I’m putting together some notes around what I’ve learned and what led to my decision.
Uses for 3D Printing
There are a number of uses for 3D Printing, people find themselves drawn to the hobby for several reasons. From the practical side of printing upgrades for appliances such as printers and robo vacs (like an updated fan grill) or replacement parts for objects around the house like a faucet handle or handrail. 3D printers can also be used to create toys and models of things like the solar system, objects with moving parts, or even models of yourself. Hobbyists have found many interesting ways to use these machines in their projects. 3D printing is being used for art sculpture purposes, with sculptors most notably using printers to create objects that would be impossible with traditional methods. 3D printers are also being attached to robots so they can print parts.
3D Printing allows you to create a rapid prototype of a plastic product. Instead of waiting for an expensive injection mold to be made, a 3D Printer can go from CAD file to product in hours. FDM is most often used for prototyping because FDM printers are by far the cheapest type of printer out there. With FDM you can create prototypes using thermoplastics that wouldn’t necessarily hold up as well as the final product.
3D printers were originally invented as a tool for those interested in creating custom scale models of cars, planes, etc. They have been used to create highly detailed hobby miniatures for years now and are also commonly used by modelers to create master models that can later be duplicated using an FDM printer.
My personal interest in getting a 3D printer arose from my new hobby of painting fantasy and sci- fi miniatures. I was looking for a way to make custom pieces for paint and this seemed like a viable option.
Cosplayers create elaborate costumes. 3D printers can be used to create simple pieces such as swords and prop weapons. They can be used for more intricate pieces like cosplay armor (pieces that hold up under wear and tear).
Cosplayers also use 3D printing to print many of the little details that go into a costume like jewelry, hair pieces, and other props that complete the outfit.
If you want to make your own RC Car or drone, with a 3D printer you can build the body and use tutorials to create the electronics brains to fly or drive your creation. 3D Printed toys are also great for children because they can be customized to what the child likes. This makes it easier for them to find something they want to play with.
3D Printing has become its own hobby. And there is a thriving community of people sharing custom models for others to print and use. People can find just about anything for 3D Printing on websites like Thingiverse.
Types of 3D Printers
In the consumer space there are two primary choices for the printing technology to use. Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Stereolithography Apparatus (SLA). FDM printers are typically lower cost, usually smaller in size, and the filament is less expensive. FDM prints can also be completed with a wider variety of materials. SLA printers are more capable when it comes to printing higher quality parts. And recent advancements in the technology have brought the price down.
An FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) Printer is a computer-controlled machine with a motor that controls X, Y, and Z axis. You can think of it as a 2 dimensional printer that adds the z axis into the mix. FDM printers work by heating up plastic filament (most commonly ABS or PLA) until it becomes liquid and forces it out of a small extruder. The printhead draws each layer on the x and y axes and moves up a level to draw the next “slice”.
A resin printer works the same way FDM printers do, but instead of using plastic filament, it uses a UV-sensitive resin that hardens when exposed to light. While FDM printers draw out one layer at a time in order to create each slice, resin printers dip a tray to the bottom of a tub of resin where a screen projects light on a thin layer causing that layer to harden. As the tray lifts, layers are continuously exposed to light.
This process is remarkably faster than FDM because rather than drawing each layer, the entire layer is fused to the prior layer through the chemical reaction of the resin to the light. In addition, resin printers can achieve a higher resolution than FDM because they don’t have to deal with the physical limitations of filament (higher FDM resolutions require smaller diameters of filament which also means more time to print).
There is a serious downside to resin printers: the chemicals. You have to take care of handling the resin used in the process because it is toxic. Having a well-ventilated area and taking care to properly protect yourself when handling the chemical is imperative After printing, you also need to wash the model to remove any unhardened resin residue and cure it to finish the hardening process.
Choosing a Printer
After evaluating the options available, I found that an LCD-based Resin printer hit the right marks for me. The big advantage was faster print speed and higher resolution than a comparably priced FDM printer. I found favorable reviews of the Anycubic Photon Mono 4K and Mono X. I went for Mono X because it has a larger print volume that will allow me to print a batch of minis simultaneously in a fraction of the time that an FDM printer will allow. The Mono X specifies that it has a 60mm/h print speed. Typical tabletop minis are 25 to 30 mm in height. At that scale, I could fit between 15 to 20 miniatures into one batch and have them ready in half an hour.
I have a space that is adequately ventilated and away from where people or animals can casually come into proximity of the printer. It’s prepped for when my delivery finally arrives. That’s right I have a few days before my printer gets here, so I decided to spend the time sharing my information finding journey so far. Look forward to my next update where I talk about my first impressions and share my first set of prints from the printer.