3D Printing: Side Effects May Include…
When I started incorporating 3D printed parts into my prop builds I wasn’t expecting unpleasant side effects. Like many, I saw my new 3D printer as a liberating machine. 3D printing would break the ties that had bound me to the old ways and allow me to overcome the limitations of my own talent. In essence, I believed that the 3D printer was a tool that would allow me to make literally anything. Looking back, this was pretty fucking stupid. But I wasn’t alone in these misguided beliefs.
“It must be nice having a 3D printer to do all that work for you”
If there’s an ill-defined, homogeneous yet totally unrelated group of people that I like to blame for many of the problems in the world, it’s the media. When cheap Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) printers hit the market a few years ago, the media went nuts. The idea of being able to make any object in the world is captivating and unsurprisingly stories about 3D printing capture the imagination of the public. But the idea that making things has somehow become democratised by the introduction of cheap 3D printers is at best misleading.
A 3D printer is a tool and like most tools, it’s pretty dumb. The 3D printer does what you tell it to do (mostly!), just like a saw, a drill or any other hand tool. Ultimately a saw and a 3D printer have the same job: take some material, and make it into a shape. So why do people view the 3D printer differently? There are a lot of factors at work here, but I’ll cover the ones that resonate with me the most.
- People don’t use hand tools as much as our ancestors did. The throw away ‘no repair’ culture we have cultivated has helped shift perceptions about working with tools.
- The word “printer” is loaded with meaning that we have derived from that little box that sits by our computer – working tirelessly to deforest the planet while we print out largely irrelevant documents.
- People have only been shown the finished product and not the process of 3D printing.
The last point is one I’d like to expand upon a little by presenting a ridiculous scenario. If viral videos and 24 hour televised news had been around when Aldous Tennon* had invented his saw, how would the coverage have looked?
Shot 1: An unnamed man cuts a tennon into a beautiful oak plank with the revolutionary new saw.
Shot 2: The protagonist uses a rubber mallet to bring a joint together.
Shot 3: Wide shot of the completed cabinet. The worker is lovingly polishing his completed masterpiece. Voiceover: “and this is all thanks to this revolutionary invention”.
You will notice there is no mention of the skills needed to conceptualise, design, prepare materials, sand, fill, assemble and finish the cabinet. And this is exactly how we talk about 3D printing – a few shots of the print head squirting out some plastic, followed by the finished item. The problem with this narrative is that it tells only a small fraction of the story. Those that use a 3D printer in their creative works will understand what I am talking about and can probably skip the next paragraph. But if you’ve not worked on a 3D printed project of your own, let me talk to you about my workflow.
First of all, I don’t really use the 3D printer to make entire props. Most printers are waaaay too slow, plastic isn’t always the most appropriate material, and while plastic filament is cheap, many other materials are much more cost effective. Here is a rough guide to my 3D printing workflow:
- Design the prop. I generally use Adobe Illustrator to make a scale drawing of the entire prop, noting all the key dimensions. While doing this I like to think about how I will make each of the pieces I’m drawing and how they will interact with each other. I quite often sketch out ideas with a good old analogue pencil. It is at this stage that I will decide if there is a use case for the 3D printer in this project.
- If there is a need for the printer, I will fire up my preferred 3D modelling software (currently Fusion 360) and work on the part(s). This process refers to the drawing I did of the prop and uses the dimensions I defined earlier.
- The next step is to print the piece. I load the part into my slicing software (simplify3D) and make some basic decision about how the part will print successfully.
- The first print is often not optimal. Once you have the object in the real world, you can often see issues that were not obvious before. Maybe a dimension in the model was slightly off. Maybe I didn’t account for a thickness of some of the other parts. Or maybe if I reorient the part on the print bed, it would print with fewer artefacts. If in doubt, redesign and reprint!
- Once I have a successful print there is a lot or work to make it look good. Even the best FDM printers have very visible layering. As I am trying to make attractive objects this must be corrected. There is a lot of sanding and filling at this stage and this step can take hours. If you want to know more about this step, read my blog about how to clean up 3D prints.
- Once I have an aesthetically pleasing piece, I will attach it with the rest of the parts of the prop.
- The final step is finishing. I won’t go into detail here, but there are usually a few hours of sanding, filling, priming, sanding again, priming again, top coat, sealing weathering and sealing again.
So, you can see that the process of 3D printing a part for a costume or prop is not that different to the process for making a cabinet. Sure, the techniques are different, but they both take significant doses of time, skill and effort to achieve. This hopefully paints a very different picture to the public perception that 3D printing is some sort of magic bullet for makers. This leads me to the side-effect of 3D printing that I find hardest to deal with.
“If I had a 3D printer, I’d be able to make props like that”
“Wow, having a 3D printer is a game changer”
“It must be nice having a 3D printer to do all that work for you”
“isn’t it cheating? I mean you just push a button and it makes the thing”.
These are all comments that I’ve received in person or online about props that I’ve made that contain small 3D printed parts. I don’t take offence, because people are not knowingly ignorant of the processes and skills involved. Their perception has been formed by the rose-coloured view of 3D printing that has been presented to them. I received similar comments during my career as a commercial photographer. “that photo’s amazing, you must have a great camera”. Sure, and Picasso was great because he had fantastic brushes, Messi’s skills come from his boots and Hendix had amazing guitar strings. Perhaps comparing one’s self to one of the greats is misguided, but I find this ad-absurdum argument often hits home. At the end of the day, a tool is only as good as the person wielding it. I own a Fender Stratocaster, but I’ll be damned if I can play like Jimi!
*I made this up, I have no idea who invented the saw. It sounded super convincing, right?
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I’ve been making things since I was old enough to pronounce Lego. Consequently my maker life has been spent constructing, kit-bashing and scratch-building anything and everything that has taken my fancy. After dedicating my time to Wargaming, Model Armour & Railways, I stumbled across what has now become an obsession – Prop building.