3D Printing for Games, Part 2

Part 2a: Alternatives to FDM : The Formlabs Form 1

When the patents ran out on FDM-style 3D printing, there was a rush of little companies and hobbyists that moved into the space. They brought the costs down fast, and they’ve been competing and cooperating ever since to improve the technology.

But FDM isn’t the only 3D printing technique out there, and some of the alternatives have some real advantages. However, most of the other 3D printing techniques are out of reach for the average game designer. Most of these techniques are still under patent protection, and available only as machines costing in the neighborhood of $100,000. Or they have been picked up by a much smaller section of the hobby market and aren’t as well developed in the open source community: It’ll take far more dedication and expertise to put one together on the cheap.

There are two 3D printing developments that hold great promise for board game prototyping that you should have an eye on:

1) Formlabs soon-to-arrive Form 1 printer, which uses SLA (Stereolithography) rather than FDM techniques, and is expected to be available for ~3,300$ in August of this year.

The Formlabs printer looks very promising, though with only videos of prototypes to judge from, it’s all speculation at this point. In theory (and from the videos), their new, affordable SLA style printer should open up higher resolution, more reliable 3D printing to the masses. It’ll still be slow, use expensive materials to print, and require some (less?) hand-work after the print to clean up. But SLA can produce smooth models where FDM leaves lines, sometimes gaps, on the model that are visible to the naked eye.

I’m also keeping an eye on Formlabs to see if they make it at all. After the close of the Kickstarter campaign that funded their first line of printers, they got slapped with a lawsuit from the 600 pound gorilla of the 3D printing industry: 3D Systems.

3D Systems claims that Formlabs made use of some of their not-yet-expired patents in making the Form1 printer. I’m not in a position to judge the merits of that claim, but I do make strong objection to one thing 3D Systems did in pursuing the suit. They not only sued Formlabs, but Kickstarter as well. That’s just evil. Attacking a company that has enabled so much progress is already an immoral move. Holding them responsible for evaluating the Intellectual Property standing of anyone who applies to run a crowdfunding campaign could kill the whole industry, if a judge lets it happen.

Will Formlabs survive their lawsuit from 3D Systems? Is there any merit to it, or is it just an attempt to stifle an up-and-coming competitor that charges 1/30th the price for a printer that 3D Systems does? I’ll be keeping my eyes on the case for the answers to those questions.

Part 2b: Alternatives to FDM : Shapeways.com

Shapeways is a 3D printing shop that will print most any 3D technique for you, for the right price. You don’t have to worry about the technical details. You just upload a model, choose your material from a list, and pay a pretty penny. Some weeks later, the completed print shows up in the mail.

Shapeways is available now. They’ve been in the industry for years, in fact. They make 3D printing as painless as it can be, as long as you don’t mind paying one-off prices for high-tech products. (Read: Not Cheap.) And as long as you don’t mind your print job being in a couple-week-deep queue before it gets printed, and then taking a few days more in the mail.

They can print in plastic, metal, or more exotic materials. You don’t need to know anything about 3D printing to use them. You just upload a model file and give them your credit card number, and you’re off.

As ouch-not-cheap as Shapeways is, the price is fair. We’re dealing with new technologies and one-off jobs here. Their cost in skilled labor and keeping up with technology is nothing to deride. And if you want to go it yourself with your own home printer after seeing their prices, calculate the break-even price on how much you’d have to print to make it worthwhile. Include the cost of your time, the cost of the plastic (which is surprisingly expensive) and the cost of your time to learn and maintain the printer. These are bleeding-edge devices that require some TLC to keep in working order. You may find that Shapeways is a better deal than they look at first glance.

Part 2c: Alternatives to FDM : The Fringe of the 3D Printing World

There are MANY other ways to print in 3D.

You can have a bed of powdered material, and then harden it into the shape you want, one layer at a time countless ways:

… you can harden a bed of metal by welding (actually, sintering) it together with a laser. This technique is called “SLS” (Selective Laser Sintering) and it’s a much beloved technique among high-tech artists. The cost per piece keeps it out of the hands of most of the rest of us.

…. you can harden a bed of concrete or plaster of paris by simply wetting it in the desired shape. One hobbyist at this years Make: Hardware Innovation Workshop was showing off a 3D printer made on this design using a hacked inkjet cartridge to deliver the water on target!

… you can have a 3D printer lay down epoxy onto a bed of powdered stone to create faux-granite. The D-Shape printer proposes to do this at the scale of whole buildings: You’d assemble the printer atop the foundation of a new house. A week or two later, drain off the leftover powdered stone leaving the walls, stairways, and electrical conduits of a building standing at the center, ready to be wired, windowed, and finished.

… you can fuse sugar into a solid model with a heat gun; essentially an industrial strength hair dryer. The “CandyFab” does this. Or you can do a similar technique in glass: One artist at last year’s Burning Man used sunlight, redirected and concentrated with mirrors and lenses, to melt sand into primitive glass 3D models.

Once you start to wrap your head around the core ideas of 3D printing, and break it down to its component parts: A material to be fused, a way of fusing it, and computer control of the fusing process, the number of ways the idea can be remixed are limitless. For now, FDM, with its syringe of molten plastic, is what’s available at hobbyist prices. But the horizon looks promising indeed.

The 3D Print and Play industry is just starting. Hobbyists who have 3D printers want things to print, and we’re starting to see some games to fill that gap. The game designer provides the 3D models files and the rules. The hobbyist downloads them and prints them off at home.

Pocket Tactics got some headlines for this recently:

Also, if you’re in the market for a 3D printer right now, pardon me a moment while I pimp my friends:

Type A Machines won Best-In-Class for their “Series 1” printer in Make: magazine’s special-issue rounding up 3D printers. It’s be hard to go wrong with them for budgets between one and two thousand dollars. On top of that, they just got an Editor’s Choice blue ribbon at MakerFaire this last weekend for their newest model. (Not even on the website yet: Last Saturday was the big reveal.)

I’m biased, because their office is the next door down from mine and because they’re incredibly nice, smart people.


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