Monday, 28 April 2014

More thoughts on 3D printing

After some excellent replies to yesterday's post, some of which were on the line with my own views, I got to thinking some more....

Let's suppose, and it's not unreasonable, given both Moore's Law and the expiry of certain 3D printing-related patents that will considerably reduce the cost of the technology, that in 3-5 years time, quite possibly less, I can get for the same price as my Brother multifunction inkjet, a 0.01mm resolution 3D printer that will handle print jobs up to the size of, say, a decent sized 28mm building, sitting on the shelf in my living room. (More likely the workshop, since they'll still be a bit hot, noisy and potentially messy.)

What's the market for wargaming products going to look like then?

I honestly think the closest analogue is the record market, or perhaps now the book market. In both cases, we can divide the world into three different types of producer:

First up, we have the big companies: in the record industry, the likes of Sony, EMI, CBS etc, even the 'indie' labels; in books we're talking Penguin, Random House, the big publishers. They produce volume product, and they win on economies of scale - the setup cost for a product gets swallowed up by the super-low unit cost and the high volume run. The analogue in the wargames business is plastics - GW, Warlord, Mantic, Wargames Factory etc. Companies who are popular, and can afford, and have the market to risk, the setup costs of plastic in order to reap the benefit of the low unit cost afterwards. The key target here is popular titles, popular artists, popular figure ranges, that the producer knows they can shift enough of to win on sheer volume.

Next up, the smaller companies. We're talking the bands with self-produced CDs on CD-Rs in the record business, we're talking print-on-demand or vanity publishing in the book market. The unit cost is higher, but the win for the smaller market is that the setup cost is lower. In the wargames world we're looking at the likes of Foundry, the Perrys, Crusader etc. The per unit cost of lead is higher, but the setup cost for mould making is massively lower by contrast with the tooling for plastics with the likes of Renedra. But the initial outlay is still non-zero: you have a setup cost: a mould costs money to make.

Next? In the music industry, you have the MP3. Stick it on your band's website, or pay a small fee to iTunes, CD Baby, whoever, and you're laughing. Outlay beyond the sweat of making the recording, next to nothing, unit cost to duplicate (and I'm intentionally not counting royalties in this) effectively zero. In books, it's the same. Self-publish on your own website, Kindle or iBooks: unit cost to you the producer to duplicate, effectively zero.

Let's pause for a moment here. Despite all the hoo-hah about DRM, unauthorised sharing etc, the fact remains that this last model clearly works. If it didn't, there is no way that iTunes would be claiming three downloads per human being on the planet (and remember Apple removed DRM from iTunes), and Amazon wouldn't be doing $5 billion a year on the Kindle store. (As an aside, it's an interesting point that over 25% of the top 100 Kindle books are from small independent publisher and/or self-published titles.)

Where does that leave the wargames business?

Actually, I think it leaves it in potentially pretty good shape. The intellectual property exists in the figure design, just as it does in the author's original writing or the musician's original recording. Yes, there will always be people who rip off intellectual properly... That's been true ever since the photocopier and the tape recorder, and probably before - the existence of MP3s and digital versions of books would, you think make it easier, but despite the protestations of, chiefly, the bigger end of the producers of content - this seems not to be killing the market. Despite the doom and gloom that was 'Home Taping is Killing Music', home taping didn't, any more than Napster, or iTunes removing DRM, did.

I see a future where figure designers will be much more prominent, because you won't be buying (say) a Warlord infantry man, you'll be buying a 3D design for a Michael Perry sculpt. I do think this needs the commercial equivalent of iTunes for 3D designs, and I do think it needs to be at least in part dedicated to wargaming and similar, because of two things: one being that search parameters would benefit from being tailored to a wargamer customer, and the other being a subtle distinction between us wargamers and the average consumer...

The distinction, of course, is that people tend to only want one copy of a book or piece of music, We as wargames want anything from one (say Marshal Ney) to tens (a French infantry battalion) to hundreds (a Zulu horde)...

What this does mean is that the pricing model gets interesting: the classy one-off 3D design of Napoleon and the 3D model of the Old Guard both take the same effort, the same disk space... and yet your customer will print one of the former, and potentially a hundred of the latter. If you were selling lead, it's easy - you sell 101 figures, ring it up, move on. Selling 3D files, you sold 2 designs. Question? Is the Imperial Guard design worth more? Less? The same? Can I as the designer add value to it by providing integral basing, model files that print you a block of 2 ranks deep, 12 figures wide in one pass to (say) Napoleon At War basing standards? And yet, by contrast, in a more skirmish-y game, you won't want 30 US Marines all alike, so you may well be willing to pay for multiple designs.

It's an interesting one. What would you be prepared to pay (say) the Perrys for a design that costs you circa 30p a figure to print on your 3D printer? Would it make a difference if it was a design you were only going to use once? Would you pay more for a unit block that your printer could handle in one go and then split up afterwards? If you're semi-useful with a 3D editor, you could do this latter yourself, of course. How much would you pay not to?

The comments section awaits... :D

[And yes. It's after midnight. But I'm counting this as Monday's post because I started it over an hour ago, the first draft was done before midnight, and it's IMPORTANT!]


  1. Excellent post. Things will get even more interesting when colour 3D printing arrives like the colour photocopier - will it then be cheaper to colour "print" or paint your figure?

    Also the scope for DIY designs and/or modifications, something that is very prevalent in the hobby with its love of scratch building.

    One thing that would appeal to me is to be able to make different poses of the same figure for skirmish games. Also to do something similar to make attractive labels/markers for games.

    There are a lot of things to look forward to.

  2. To begin with, it seems to me that politicians and industry planners (is there such an animal) haven't really grasped the significance of reproducing technologies becoming available to households. If you buy a device, you own it, and, short of, say, counterfeiting money, ought to be able to do anything with it. If you can't copy material, then what's the point of the copying device? If the big companies had their way, scanners and computer printers would be so reduced in function as to constitute unmerchandizable items.

    Marketing designs I agree will be problematic if there isn't some kind of change in thinking about how the 'market' works. One approach might be to 'sell' the use of a selection of designs. Suppose I want to build a Napoleonic French Army. I'll want one Napoleon, one Ney, one MacDonald, one Murat, say, but several officers, flag bearers and drummers; gunners, horsemen, etc and hundreds of infantry, horsemen and cannon.

    These would probably have to be bundled in some way - a little like the Wargames factory WSS figures, an individual of which can be made up into officer/flag bearers/drummer instead of your basic soldier. The 'bundles' might be sold as 1.Foot, 2. Horse, 3.Guns, with command being included in each.

    So you buy the package. But here's the thing. Joe Bloggs might be looking for only a few figures, wanting a skirmish level game. Fred Nerg wants hundreds of figures 'cos he's a bally great megalomaniac and goes for hugeous armies, eh? The manufacturer/vendor doesn't know one from the other. Pricing would have to be within reason for both buyers, but what it will mean is the Fred will be getting each figure a whole lot cheaper than Joe will.

    But that's true of any reproducing device. You buy a $200 printer and produce on average 10 pages of printed material a day. I have the same priced printer and might produce a page a week at most. In effect I'm paying 70 times more for my single printed page than you are. What does it matter? We're both happy.

    If the printer were ten times the price I might hesitate to buy one, of course, not really being able to justify the cost with such a low volume of use. But then I'm stuck with a device that can not produce a hard copy. I might not be too chuffed about that and decide without a printing device, I probably could do without a computer altogether.

    But the manufacturers might not like that, ten times the price producing significantly less than one tenth the custom.

    The whole economic system of production through to consumption, of provision and use, has to be rethought. And rethought with intelligence and planning, for the present ad hockery (or is it odd hackery) just won't do.

    Oh, by the way. If our politicians had the spine, the nuts, the guts, the brain and the heart, the eyes to see and ears to listen, we might, as a bi-product of a planned (be it noted I don't mean micromanaged) economy, achieve the end of World poverty.


  3. Is the musuc industry still alive? I thought we killed it with all the home taping we did in the 1970s.

  4. Interesting article, Being able to produce metal figures is already available using direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). With regard to pricing an option may be to charge LESS for a one off figure file such as a commander (£5 for example) but more for a single figure file that will be used in multiples (i.e. £25 for march attack figure). You could tailor the look of your army to exactly how you want it to appear.


  5. Let's assume a large price decrease along with an increase in resolution all at the home machine level. At present, materials costs are almost nil (but several orders of magnitude more than injection moulded plastic).

    The remaining limit is time. First and currently most important is the time to design the object. This takes a lot more investment than one might think. But let's take that as read as well since many manufacturers are already designing and making their masters using industrial 3D printing technology.

    The big killer will be the time to print. Let's fake some math. (n.b.I started this post at 5 a.m. there may be errors in detail) A 28mm high figure occupying a box about 15x15mm printed at 20% infill and a resolution of .01 mm (10x current standard resolution) will take about 1257 meters of printed filament (not feedstock). Let's multiply current print speeds by 10 (1000 mm/s) That figure is going to take 1257 seconds or 21 minutes to print. Your unit of 30 French Old Guard is going to take 10 hours to print and that's on a "10x better than now" machine and assuming nothing goes wrong.

    By comparison, you can go online or to your local games store and buy as many high quality figures as you like almost instantly. It takes 4 days to print 10 units or for a decent parcel service to deliver to your door as many as you care to pay for.

    To extend the paper printer model, home printers are great for doing a couple of pages a day but if you need to print in quantity, a big printer or the local print shop still has a place.

    For me, where 3d printing shines is at the other end - custom one off or 10 off pieces. Home Guard/Sealion and VSF are current passions of mine. The market for Type 22 pill boxes and notional victorian steam tanks (in 25 mm of course) is small and not particularly profitable- Ideal niches for 3d printing

    Licensing - I think the Font or "cast your own" method might be an approach. Buy a "family" at a certain size for a reasonable price and print as many as you like. I haven't fully thought this through and it is time to make tea for the women of the house. Great discussion though.

  6. A thought occurs - scan your face and print that on your General figure (or remake your Boudicca with Kate Upton's assets) Wargaming narcissism at its finest.

  7. Publisher as recommendation engine. This a role the publishers of books and music have been resisting, and so other organisations have been doing it for them. But if say Mantic or GW says "we think these figures go well in our game X", that'll generate some sales even if the designer's unheard-of.

    I can see a metaprogram here: take a bunch of files for different elements in the same unit (your three poses, or whatever), and duplicate and combine them to make a single unit block. I think it would make sense to have that completely separate from the actual figure sales.

    Hey, you know what's really neat about this? An end to scale creep! If you want your plastic soldiers to be genuine honest 1/72, they can be, no matter who the maker is.

    One thing that I want, since I tend to play different genres and periods, is a way of breaking the figures down again afterwards and re-using the material.

  8. Really interesting articles, thanks for putting them up. There was a discussion about this coming Internet of things and how it could shake up the economy on Radio 4's Start the week on Monday, which adds to the topicality of this blog post

    In a way you can see some of this change already. Rules moving to PDF format has not put rule writers out of business, just look at TFL. If the product is good enough and the support is there, people will buy it. The manufacturer needs to add value, eg TFL seasonal specials.

    A 3D printed figure range could consist of some general designs e.g marching, shooting and then bespoke poses on request or for an extra fee or 'your face' on the figure as was said above. If the customer feels they are getting something extra they will go to that designer.


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