Wednesday, 13 October 2021

3D Printing for Fun and Profit

 Insert randomized greeting.

A little under three years ago, I went and bought a 3D printer. It's a Sparkmaker FHD (so named because it's screen is fairly good, and its adapter sparked out on the second use), and it's a fairly decent little machine. It has a relatively small print area, which affects what I can print on it, but for quality of prints, it can go toe to toe with any of its contemporaries.

And it's still in working order, though all the usual suspects have had to be replaced.

So, what's the point?


I got the printer as a project. As a way to get access to options I didn't otherwise have.

First of all, even a relatively low-maintenance 3D printer is a project. Even with just the routine maintenance and parts replacements, plus the actual work needed to sort the prints out. There's cleaning and support removal. There's FEP replacement and post-curing.

So, you know, there's that. I wouldn't recommend a 3D printer for anyone put off by the notion of fiddly mechanics or more-than-slightly toxic chemicals (yes, I know that there are less toxic options, but I ask you, where's the fun in that?).

Second, the sheer variety of printable 3D models available online is staggering. Even if you stick entirely with free options, there's just so much. With a non-zero budget, that swells to near-debilitating amounts of choice.

The good news is this means that a 3D printer opens up access to models that would never have been available without it.

The other good news is that most of the immense pile of shame created by quasi-hoarder tendencies are now digital, rather than plastic. I mean, there's still a pile of already-printed pile of shame, but it's a mere fraction of the digital one.

The bad news is that I've had to upgrade my external digital storage solution. Considerably. There are thousands of files I will probably never get around to printing.

But there's probably high-tens, even low-hundreds, of models I will.

Thirdly, access to a 3D printer has encouraged me to try my hand at 3D design. I am nowhere near any level of competence at real 3D sculpting, but I've picked up the basics of assembling geometric shapes into something resembling miniatures, and I've found some methods to adapt somebody else's work to suit my needs.


I've done some maths.

I'm just about breaking even.

However, I have two clear reasons why I'm not doing better, financially. Disorganization and hoarding. I have not been pushing the productivity as far as it could go - I haven't got the printer running all the time, making things instead of buying them - and that obviously diminishes financial returns. And I've fallen into the Patreon-sinkhole. I'm paying for a lot of models I'm not printing. Both of those are on me, not the printer.

So, how am I breaking even?

Well, the costs come down to four things: initial investment, maintenance, material and files. The cost of maintenance and material (which is basically spare parts and resin) is relatively low on a per-model basis. So low, in fact, that if we ignore the cost of files, the printer paid for itself within a year. If it weren't for the cost of files, which - as stated above - is entirely my fault, the printer would be saving me money. As it is, though, it is only just not self-sustaining, in terms of cost/reward.

Obviously, some of that reward is in actual models. There are definitely parts of armies I own that have been 3D printed. Some are of my own design, like the chariots for my Beast Herds army. Some are modified versions of other people's work, like the Defiler I've built out of an off-brand Dunecrawler, some random weapon files and an Ork Power Klaw - with a fair amount of simple designing of my own to adjust and adapt the whole thing. And there's stuff that's entirely somebody else's work, acquired for free or for a small fee. Minotaurs, Giants, Blighthaulers, Rhinos. A few Plague Marines.

I could be printing a larger part of my armies, but you know what? A large part of my reason for being in this hobby is in the models. I like official minis. I'll keep buying lots of them.

I've got a fair bit of terrain out of the printer too. From a bridge I designed myself (or, well, I designed the sides and then used some good old fashioned Plasticard for the rest) to the Japanese shrine I got from a Kickstarter. Because of the limitations of my printer, I've had to stick to fairly small terrain pieces, though, which obviously cuts down on the savings, but I have some plans for the future as well, and anticipate that terrain will remain a small-but-considerable portion of my useful prints.

The best cost/reward ratio is in bases, though. Or, rather, base toppers and inserts. There's plenty of videos and blog posts covering how to print full bases, but the fact of the matter is that I do not need to print full bases - or at least, the cost of buying plain bases is not worth the hassle of trying to get my printer to produce an actually round base. What I need is something to put on top of the bases I already have. So I've been cutting little circles of texture and terrain digitally, printed them, and added them to plain bases.

If you've been around for a while, you've almost certainly seen the kind of thing I mean; there are plenty of companies producing physical base toppers and inserts. Unfortunately, these are not cheap. In some cases, the base may end up costing almost as much as the mini on top, and for a full army, even the cheaper options (like GW's plastic sculpted bases) add up. Especially if you need bigger or more unusual sizes.

I estimate I've based about fifty models using this method, and that number could have been much higher if I'd been more deliberate in my planning. Most if not all my lipped bases going forward will have 3D printed base inserts.

The strange thing is how scarce availability of pre-designed inserts and toppers is. There's a plethora of full bases, but very few partial options. No matter, it is fairly uncomplicated to modify a full base into a topper.


In the end, I think the 'and' in 'for fun and profit' might be doing a lot of work. If it weren't for both, I don't think I'd still be sticking it out. 

It is fun to have a unique Defiler (much better-looking than the original, if I do say so myself), but if it had cost as much as buying a plastic one, would I have bothered? Maybe not.

It's gratifying to be able to base whole warbands for less than one model's cost. But if it hadn't been for the ability to achieve basing options outside what would normally have been available, I'd have probably just stuck with bought bases, sand, bitz, and texture paint.

So, then, it's all in the combo.

And with that, it's going to be ta for now.

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