Journey from 3D into metal casts

In 1913, some 100 years ago, H.G. Wells published little wars. Little did he know that he would start an industry of toy soldiers and the ‘wargaming’ hobby. Since then table top wargaming has been a constantly evolving industry. Over the years we have seen industry leaders constantly raise the bar as far as quality and complexity of miniatures go, that said in more recent years some of these leaders have started to shift their focus, most notably towards the production of plastic ‘miniatures’. Taking large steps away from the ‘tin soldiers’ of old. Painters are becoming far more savvy and with the diverse range of products available now to help gamers produce expert looking models more easily – I am certain that the increasing trend of better and better models being painted  more easily will only continue to grow. The range of basing products alone to help gamers base their models at that high end level is in itself is quite astounding.

 

One of the  interesting things we have observed with the current industry trends is that with the rising popularity of plastic miniatures, comes with it a sense that the target audience is perhaps getting younger, there seems to be a trend moving backwards towards the miniatures becoming simpler (yes a generalisation, there are plenty of exceptions) and in some cases we are seeing a shift towards miniatures produced in cheap soft plastics that are more like toys than scaled model kits. Clearly there is a large fan base for plastic miniatures and they have some great advantages such as the ease in which they assemble and can be cut up for customising other models. That said there are also some old school gamers who prefer the metal miniatures and to a lesser (yet growing) extent – resin. One of the things we often hear in the good old metal vs plastic debate is that the weight and feel of a metal miniature when using it during a game gives it a more quality feel, and that meal miniatures can be more easily stripped back and repainted. I won’t go too much further as this discussion tends to quickly dissolve into school yard style arguments over what is better when one looks at the views on the online community, Though one popular argument is that you can get more detail into plastic and or resin miniature’s, a claim and a myth that we hope to dissolve a little with the release of the metal miniature’s in our range.

 

The advent of 3D sculpting is in some ways helping the drive towards plastic miniatures. It is easier to prototype from 3D straight into plastic these days and with talented 3D artists being easier to find  then traditional sculptors, manufactures seem to be embracing change. 3D can be more cost effective if utilised the right way, reposing, tweaking and redesigning components being the prime example. Plastic sprues can be designed digitally, 3D models can be used for basic things like instruction manuals and repainted for model art.. the list does go on …

 

What we wanted to do is bring this new technology and meld it with the old. Rather than use 3D to make great plastic miniatures as others are doing, we wanted to try and enhance what can be done with the metal and resin miniatures. We found that in moulding our larger models for resin production (yes our large models will be metal resin hybrid kits) there was a small loss in quality and detail from the sculpt or 3D print to the final model. It si generally accepted by most industry insiders and gamers that resin models tend to hold more detail from the original due in part to the moulding process and in part to the materials… though the 2nd half of that assessment is really not that true, you can get comparable quality in metal if you go the right way about it. The aim was to minimise this and see what could be done with metal and I think the results are rather exciting.

 

Our vision to bring a new level of detail to metal miniatures started with finding an affordable yet high end 3D printing service. Unfortunately this meant going off shore but the results have come back and we have had models printed with details well below the 12 micron level, 24 microns being the magic number where any detail below this isn’t viewable by the human eye without assistance (i.e. magnifying glass, high res cameras to enlarge areas of detail and so on). Some of our prints have been printed down to the 4 micron level, most are printed at the 12 to 8 micron level so the level of detail in our prototypes can potentially far exceed anything that a traditional sculptor can do. Now just because you can print something this detailed does not mean that you ‘should’ as we learnt quickly that adding too much detail to a miniature can result in you having details there that will never get painted, that is if they were not covered up by undercoat when the painting process started. The translation from screen to print was also an interesting journey a we mentored a number of computer game artists who had to re-train their eyes to exaggerate items that would be too thin to cast up – for example a tiny thin spear that whilst we can sculpt and print it – casting it is another matter, let alone how fragile the end product would be.

 

Here are some pictures of a prototype model that won’t be making it into the final range (we may consider using it as a promotional model once some improvements are made). The 3D model looks pretty good, and we sectioned him up to experiment with assembly options such as having a separate head (we won’t be doing this in 99% of our range as it’s a nightmare to glue on).  Here are the 3D renders to 3D print comparisons:

 

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Now the challenge was to make this metal without losing most of that amazing detail, or in the least to have a comparable loss to the detail lost during resin casting.

Thanks to some clever ingenuity by our casting partner here in Australia we have success:

 

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So what’s next? Well we are in two phases of development with the miniatures, the range at large is presently being worked on by our talented team, as each model is finished its then queued up for printing via our preferred printing process (this is quite costly). This is an interim plan whilst we seriously look at making the sizable investment into an ultrahigh resolution 3D printer. The models are printed on a first come first can be afforded basis as the project is still being funded personally from my wage. Once printed they are cleaned up and sent off to our casting partner who prototypes a metal cast and then we go to vulcanised moulding. The process seems to be sorted so it’s more a matter of funding at this point. Whilst the above examples are fairly old now as far as the wider project is concerned (6+ months old now) it was well overdue for sharing so i hope you enjoyed some insight into how we are approaching miniature production.

 

I hope to be announcing something on the bases front soon as we plan to do something different here too.  So yes, the thick metal base on our prototype is not what you should expect, we are again working on a process to bring something that is both high in quality and unique. You won’t be getting a fraction of a cent worth of plastic as a base with our miniatures.

 

Announcements are around the corner on not only the first metal miniatures releases but also on our miniature basing system so be sure to tune back in when we make our next round of announcements.

 

John

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