3D Printing for Games

Part 1: Should I 3D Print My Game

The short answer: For a prototype? Maybe! For mass market? Nooooo…..

With current costs and technology, 3D printers for a mass-market board game aren’t even close to practical.

The current kind of 3D printer you can buy completed or as a kit for under $2,000 is an “FDM” printer. It builds up plastic models in layers, laying down a single thread of plastic to slowly build up shapes. It’s an awesome tech with many uses, but it has several major limitations that make it useless for mass producing a game, or most anything else:

a) The cost of the plastic is very high: ~40$/kg Home filament makers like the “Filastruder” may bring this drastically down in the coming year.

b) The resolution is visible to the naked eye, and requires fine tuning to optimize, including retuning with each new roll of plastic loaded.

c) The prints are slow. A single chess pawn might take 15 to 30 minutes to print on a typical FDM printer. That’s a full day to print a single chess set. Conventional injection molding machines could turn out hundreds or thousands of sets in a day.

d) Hand labor is still needed to clean up many shapes of print after the fact. If your shape has an overhang in it, there needs to be a support “raft” under the overhang that you trim away after the print is done. FDM printers can’t lay down shapes floating in open air: They have to lay the shape down onto something. Say you want to make a model of a man pointing off into the distance, his arm straight out? You’ll click the “support” box on in your printer software so it can build a raft under the outstretched arm, and then you’ll trim it off by hand when the print is done.

Slight overhangs are fine: Anything up to ~ a 45 degree angle the printer can build on the layer before. But a sharp overhang demands a raft, and that means hand labor to fix up after the print is done.

e) FDM printers need frequent maintenance to unjam the extruder heads, etc.

For these and other reasons, injection molding for plastic components, with its high up-front cost will likely remain the technology of choice for the foreseeable future.

How long is the foreseeable future? Like, at LEAST 6 months. 😉

FDM printing is an awesome technology, but it has its limitations to be aware of. For now, it’s best for prototyping components and making sure your models look good, balance right, play right, etc. As expensive as the tooling costs for injection molding are, it gets the job done for mass production. FDM printing might be appropriate 10 to 50 sets for beta testing or an extremely limited release. But even then, you might be better served by using off-the-shelf & repurposed components.

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