Regular Modeling Guys, 3D Printing, and Where It Could Be Heading

Model Airplane Maker recently shared his thoughts about 3D printing and scale modeling, comparing the current state of 3D printing as a modeling tool to personal computing on the eve of Windows 95 25 or so years ago.

It’s an apt comparison: use of a home computer in the early 90s required commitment and a sense of humor, and progressing past ‘low-fi’ for things like printing, high-speed internet access, and digital photography required significant hardware and learning investment.

MAM’s post specifically contemplated what it would take for 3D printing to join X-Acto knives, sanding sticks, and airbrushes as tools in use by most scale modelers. The cost of 3D printing hardware capable of the fidelity and finish expected by scale modelers has plummeted in recent years, with a decent resin printer in the price range of a high-end airbrush or quality compressor.

A few taste-making influencer-modelers (yes, skeptics, scale modeling has taste-makers and influencers) like Matt MacDougall and Will Pattison are already quite active experimenting, teaching, and demonstrating the potential of 3D printing in Facebook modeling groups and other social media.

The current focus on 3D printing for scale modelers is directly attributable to the breakthrough of one particular 3D printing technology: affordable digital light processing (DLP) resin printers. DLP resin’s resolution, fidelity, and friendliness to scale modeling techniques outshine the filament-based 3D printing technology prevalent a few short years ago.

Filament-based printing renders objects in discernible layers or strata that modelers usually find to need to filling or other remediation, and the resulting parts also require significant preparation to accept paint. I used filament printed 3D-printed parts obtained via Shapeways (more later) extensively on a recent model railroad project, and can attest that preparing for paint was a laborious, multi-step process involving some unusual solvents.

The breakthrough MAM is awaiting would improve ease of use, such as 3D design interface simplification and compatibility between the infinite combinations of hardware, software, and file types. Mastery of 3D design software is probably more of a barrier to mass adoption of 3D printing by scale modelers than cost. 3D modeling and design, computer aided design (CAD), and even photography and graphics applications are inherently complex and thus challenging to casually master—indeed, those are actual marketable skills in real-world employment, unlike seam-filling and decal application.

The trajectories of other technologies adopted by modelers over the years might offer clues about the future of 3D printing in scale modeling. The long out-of-production ALPS printer, a color printer that could print white in addition to black and colors, is one such technology. A few serious modelers had ALPS printers for printing decals, but they did not become common. Another, more current technology in use by serious modelers are craft cutting machines like Cricuts and Silhouettes, which can be used to precisely cut paint masks and flat parts.

Both ALPS printers and digital craft cutting machines had or have a significant dedicated user base among modelers, but they still are somewhat exotic, and certainly not as ‘standard’ or commonplace as an airbrush on modeling workbenches and desks. Individual hobbyists’ resource priorities and daunting learning curves likely outweigh cost alone as barriers to widespread adoption by scale modelers.

However, during the decade or so ALPS color printers were available, a few enterprising modelers found that their ALPS printers had modest commercial potential, and could be used to fill an aftermarket niche demand for short-run custom decals. In other words, modelers with ALPS printers were making decals not just for themselves, but for other modelers as well. I still have a few ALPS-printed decal sets in my stash, mostly weirdo sci-fi stuff that were never going to get any love from Superscale, Two Bobs, Furball, or Cartograf.

To be sure, there’s already a modest selection of 3D-printed aftermarket parts out there, but it will likely grow as an aftermarket manufacturing method complementary to photoetch, resin, and other exotic newcomer methods like Archer’s and Quinta’s relief-printed rivets and cockpit details.

Certain staple military vehicle appurtenances, for example, lend themselves to 3D printing over molding or even photoetch. The headlights and brushguards on post WW2 and modern Russian tanks, for example, are complexly formed little cages enclosing a variety of even smaller shapes, and are difficult to get right with conventional molding techniques. 3D printing would get that complexity right with no need for separate parts or complicated, overscale mating. Muzzle brakes similarly defy one-piece molding while staying true to their actual complex shapes. Various fins, antennas, and landing gear elements on aircraft models might also invite the 3D printing treatment.

Here’s hoping the niche 3D printing aftermarket manufacturers get more exposure and sales volume as they home in on components they can produce better than any other. And perhaps the kit manufacturers themselves will start including a few key parts—like headlight guards, muzzle brakes, or crew-served weapons—rendered via 3D printing, much the same way small photoetch frets are currently included in many kits.

In addition to packaging and selling 3D-printed details much as aftermarket decals, and resin, cast metal, and photoetch aftermarket parts have been sold for decades, 3D printing services or labs are another way modelers can benefit from 3D printing without a 3D printing rig of their own.

Shapeways is a prominent name in this market space, and there are others, though the plummeting prices and increased capabilities of late generation 3D printing hardware—including the resin printers that readily meet scale modelers’ quality expectations—appear to be overwhelming Shapeways’ business model. Nonetheless, Shapeways prints designers’ models on demand, and offers a large library of numerous models and model parts to be printed on demand, and there are other such services available.

Modelers often speculate about the possibility of entire kits—not just aftermarket accessories or parts—manufactured via 3D printing. There already is a small market for 3D printed kits, and almost predictably, they are short run and niche subjects—often in smaller scales—that might have been expected to be produced in resin, white metal, and or low-fi styrene injection molding. Small scale military vehicles, for example, seem already to be attracting 3D printed kit attention, such as from Red Tank Miniature.

3D printing is an exciting new development, both as a technique for individual scale modelers, but especially as a short run manufacturing method. Until the technology becomes more accessible and less fiddly, as MAM points out, regular modeling guys are more likely to buy and use 3D printed parts from a manufacturer or a friend before they brew their own at home.


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