3D Printing at PAX East 15

by theauthorm

You can’t 3D print a convention (yet!), so I went to see one in person this past weekend. PAX East represents the forefront of gaming and gaming technology, or so my assistant tells me.

As such, I was greatly pleased to see a panel of experts discussing the rise of 3D printing in games. The panel consisted of a writer/reporter, an engineer, a games publisher, and two designers/artists.

  • Joseph Flaherty [Wired]
  • Colin Raney [Formlabs]
  • Adam Poots [Cool Mini or Not]
  • Jessica Rosenkrantz [Nervous System]
  • Jesse Louis-Rosenberg [Nervous System]

It was a fascinating discussion, and, since I can find neither hide nor hair of a video online, I am prepared to give you a glimpse of the event through the crystal lens of my mind, and since I remember everything with 100% fidelity it will be as though you had been there yourself.

Accessibility and History
The panel began with a brief discussion in regards to the origins of the modern movement to make 3D printing accessible to the general public, which began largely with the expiration of several key patents from the 50’s. Joseph Flaherty, writer for Wired, had a lot of experience with the Rep Rap Project that ultimately resulted in the MakerBot, and premade commercial fabricators. Today, the term 3D Printing now refers to a wide rainbow of machines, processes, and concepts.

3D Printing in Every Flavor
When most people think of 3D Printing, they think of Fused Deposition Modeling. A machine that lays down layer after layer of (most often) plastic. Oftentimes thought of as a robot arm with a hot glue gun. I’ve talked a little about FDM printing in my design diary about undercuts.

However, there are an incredible number of magics that can conjure a variety of objects out of thin air. Nervous System Design Studio has implemented a startling number of these processes. Everything from machines that lay down layers of glue on beds of metal powders to machines that use lasers to fuse plastic in intricate designs. Each printing process has a variety of strengths and weaknesses based on both the process and the material. Beyond the properties of the end object, there are also concerns in terms of cost, time, and effort involved in creating of a particular object. If you want to create a solid gold object, it’s entirely possible, but, perhaps, just a tad expensive. The folks at Nervous Systems brought a good deal of interesting objects that they had created through a variety of processes.

PLA verses ABS

NoneSince the majority of 3D printing processes available to the average maker are FDM printers, a good amount of time was spent talking about the difference between the two major kinds of magic printer fuel: ABS and PLA plastic. To put short a long discussion. ABS is harder and has a higher propensity to bend. PLA can print in higher fidelity than ABS, is available in more colors, but is not as sturdy. A more in depth article about the differences between the two types of plastics can be found here.

Stereo Lithography Printing

Formlabs is a maker of consumer 3D printers, and presented a lot of good info as a panelist. They don’t make FDM printers, instead they use a process with LASERS! Which is pretty exciting. Called Stereo Lithography, or SLA, the Formlabs printer uses a laser to harden thin layers of resin together. Interestingly, the printer could be made affordable because it uses the same type of lasers that modern Blu Ray Players and video game consoles use. SLA printers have the pinpoint precision of a laser, so the resolution of an SLA print can far outstrip the detail of an FDM printer. Furthermore, the process is much faster, quieter, and uses lasers! (LASERS!!!!!) There are some hurdles to SLA printing, though, namely that it requires photo-curable resin, which is not as easy to use or widely available. Regardless of the process or the material you plan to use with 3D printing, there are always trade offs.

Uses for 3D Printing

So 3D Printing is an amazing process, allowing us to create things in new ways that simply weren’t possible or accessible before. But what’s the point? Traditional manufacturing still has a lot of advantages over 3D printing, why embrace the 3D printing movement?

kinematicsDress-back-4x3.jpgOne of a Kind: Nervous System has an algorithm that allows them to create a 3D printed dress that is perfectly tailored to an individual. You scan yourself with a  smartphone scanning device, the computer does a little math, and a printer creates a dress to match your dimensions. Modern manufacturing depends on economy of scale, which is why we have clothing “sizes”, 3D printing can do away with small / medium / large, you can just be YOU sized. Furthermore, you can modify the dress design however you like, and it could be the only one of its kind. It is just as easy for a 3D printer to print 100 different things as it is to print 100 of the same thing.

Prototyping: In traditional manufacturing, it is very difficult to make just one of something at a reasonable cost. If you’re not 100% sure that your model is going to do exactly what you want it to do, it can be very difficult to get a sample or a prototype without some pretty heavy commitments. Cool Mini or Not is an industry leader in board game miniatures manufacture, and when they want to know how something is going to look they turn to 3D printers. Now, if you want to make sure the shield emblem on a knight is going to stand out enough to be seen, you don’t require an agreement with a manufacturer that allows you to send away for a sample that you might get within a few weeks. In a couple hours you can get a pretty good idea about what your model needs by printing it in plastic. Often it wont have the fidelity of a finished project, but it’s an excellent in-between step to give you an idea of the objects properties. In science and industry this is even more important, if you’re testing things like interlocking parts or aerodynamics.

Accessibility & Community: Lastly, there was significant discussion about the communities that grow around 3D printing. We’re starting to see 3D printing making its way into schools, universities, and workplaces. As more people take a look at 3D printing, they are starting to puzzle out what problems they can use 3D printing to solve. A top scientist or industrialist may be able to use 3D printing to build a better plane wing or send a wrench into space, but give it to a seamstress and she’ll revolutionize sewing equipment, give it to a chef and he’ll 3D print innovative gourmet experiences, give it to doctors and they’ll build prosthesis to change people’s lives.

Of course, I like to think that 3D printing in the hands of a game designer will change the world of play. The important bit, though, is that if children start to see and understand a technology like 3D printing they’ll change the world in ways we’ve never even imagined.