Tuesday, July 25, 2017

3D Printing for Wargames

I've decided to join the 21st century of wargaming!  I've messed with 3D printing only in so much as I've contracted a guy to create some 3D models for me (Bedford truck, Canadian LAV III, and Canadian G-Wagen) then had them printed for me by Shapeways (online 3D printing service).  That gets the job done and is ok for one off or small projects, but it gets rather expensive in the grand scheme on things.

So I up and bought a FlashForge Creator Pro.  To be perfectly honest, I've been eyeing a 3D printer for no less than 2 years ... but never pulled the trigger.  All the research I have done to date made it sound like getting into 3D printing was going to be one massive headache of learning through trial and error - mostly error (and expense).  I'm happy to report that it has been nowhere near as complicated as I thought it was going to be.  Some of that is based on my pre-research, but the other part is the extremely helpful community of 3D printing folks who are out in the interwebs and on Facebook.

I had the printer setup and ready to print in about 10-15 minutes ... it fact it was so fast I was sure I had screwed something up ... but no, I did everything right.

I figure I'm not the last one to head down this path so I figured I would put together a short "getting started and lessons learned" blog post here so you can avoid the mistakes I've made over the last couple of days (at least as it applies to the FlashForge Creator Pro).  This is also useful in understanding what it takes to get started with 3D printing.  One disclaimer, I still have tons to learn, but at this point I'm printing stuff off that is coming out great!

I don't claim to be anywhere near an expert at this point ... but I'm certainly underway with several completed models ... a picture of my Vauban fort progress below ...

Not too shaby!  I've been happy with the FlashForge Creator Pro so far ... humming along nicely.

A few basic things you should know:

  • Extruder (printer part) - This is the nozzle on the 3D printer that heats up and discharges the printing material (filament).  The FlashForge Creator Pro is a dual-extruder printer, meaning it has two nozzles for discharging printing material (filament).  You can print two colours at a time or have two types of printing material loaded up (e.g. I have PLA on one and ABS on the other).
  • Filament (material) - This is the material used for printing - like the ink in the ink cartridge for a regular printer.
  • Platform (printer part) - This is the surface that your object gets printed on (base plate).  Heated plates are essentially required to get any PLA or ABS type printing done.
  • PLA (material) - PLA is a type of filament that is used for 3D printing.  PLA is polylactic acid is a biodegradable thermoplastic, made from renewable resources like corn starch or sugarcane. Outside of 3D printing, it's typically used in medical implants, food packaging, and disposable tableware. The main benefit of PLA is that it's easy to print.
  • ABS (material) - ABS is another type of filament that is used for 3D printing.  Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is an oil-based thermoplastic, commonly found in (DWV) pipe systems, automotive trim, protective headgear, and toys (like Lego!). Objects printed with ABS boast slightly higher strength, flexibility, and durability than those made of PLA, at the cost of a slightly more complicated print process (complete with nasty fumes!).
  • Slicer (software) - The "slicer" is essentially the software program you will use to prepare and print your 3D model.  When 3D files are created they are not ready to print.  Most commonly I've seen STL files created for 3D projects.  The STL files need to be converted into something your specific printer can understand how to print - that is done with your slicer.  I have been using FlashPrint from FlashForge with great success so far.  I load up an STL file and fill out some very basic info (which extruder to print with and how much infill should be use) then produce the file for the printer (in my case, a file with an X3G extension).
  • Infill (print job setting) - The percentage of fill and fill pattern to use on the "inside" of an object.  For FlashPrint the default infill is 15% in a hex pattern.  I typically reduce that to 5% for anything that isn't a small object.  More on that in a bit though ...
  • Layers (print job setting) - Every model consists of a number of layers that will be printed.  You can adjust how thick each layer is for each pass the printer makes.  I'm currently using the default 0.18mm thickness for my printer.  The smaller the number the more detailed - but longer - the print will be.
  • Speed (print job setting) - How fast the extruder/head unit will move while printing and positioning.  Default is normally good, but for small objects you may have to slow things down or project multiple objects at once as if the extruder is in one place for too long it will melt layers that have already been produced.
  • Temperature (print job setting) - The extruder needs to be hot enough to melt the filament.  If your filament is coming out of your extruder constantly when not printing it is likely the extruder temperature is too high for the type of filament being used.
I've been using Hatchbox PLA to print my models so far.  I bought the filament from Amazon for roughly $22 per spool.  I'm still on my first spool - that includes everything I've printed for the fort, along with all my mess ups and test models (lots of those!).

Once I've created the printing file, I copy it to a SD card (comes with the printer) then put the SD card into the slot in the printer and use the little control panel to select the file to print.  Some pictures below of prints in progress ...

Printing the bartizan turret roof.

Finished bartizan turret roof.

Working on the bartizan with turret.

Great, so you get a model printed.  Then you try to remove it from the plate and it is essentially super glued onto the base plate!  For gods sake don't force it - in my case I have to heat the base plate to 100C before I can remove the model.  A 3D print removal tool is essential (and inexpensive).  The tool is pictured below on the left side.  My printer has a menu that allows me to head the base plate (bed) - at 100C the 3D removal tool slides right under the model and it removes easily.

When I print, my extruder temperature is 200C while the base plate (bed) is 50C.  Fundamentally, the reason the model sticks to the base plate is because you don't want it to move at all while the print job is in progress - precision, precision, precision!

When I was still in test print and mess things up mode I managed to get filament stuck in the extruder.  Oh joy!  The printer came with the tool pictured above and on the right side.  I pre-heated the extruder that was clogged and used that tool to push the blockage through the extruder hole.  Took a little bit of muscle but worked perfect.  I was then off and printing again.

One of the first things I read about 3D printing was that you need to have patience.  Boy howdy that was the best advice so far.  I'll also mention that there is a great community out there that is helpful.  I've joined a couple of Facebook groups for 3D printing.

I mentioned infill earlier.  For my smaller turret top (pictured below) I used the default 15% infill (hex pattern) ...

For larger prints this is not needed and only results in more material being used and a big increased in printing time.  For larger objects, like the walls for the fort, I use a 5% infill, pictured below ...

One challenge I need to solve but have not yet, is printing with overhangs or hallow objects that will have layers printed at elevation with not layers underneath them.  Some recommend adding supports under those parts of the object, but that gets tricky.  I've seen a few things where it seems a hollow object was printed without supports can came out great.  I'm continuing to research this topic and will figure it out one way or another.  More test prints in my future.

Here are some close up shots of one of the parts ... with a 28mm ACW miniature for scale.

So, more adventures in 3D printing to come.  At this point I figure the larger parts of the fort are costing me about 2 or 3 dollars in filament each.  It just takes time to print (8-10 hours for the larger projects).  Much of that is because I wanted a higher quality print (thinner layers).

As far as durability is concerned ... I'm thinking I could drive my truck over the parts and they might break then ... otherwise extremely durable (especially with infill).

I'll stop there ... that should give you some idea of where I'm at and what it takes to get started.


  1. Looks absolutely fantastic Jay! This truly opens up an endless box of possibilities for you. Can't wait to continue to see what you come up with :)

    1. Thanks Ivor! FYI ... I've packed up a goody bag for you ... should be shipping out this week -- just need to make it over to the post office :-)

  2. This is pretty cool Jay. Question though, when I went to look this model up I could find Flashforge Creator Pro, but not FireForge. Is this the same thing?


    1. Lol ... typo. Have Firelock Games in my head from Blood and Plunder! Oh man ... yes ... FlashForge ... d'oh! Will fix that here in a sec.

    2. Isn't it fun getting older? I like FireForge name better, it's much more..... wait for it.... Flashy;)

    3. lol!!! Getting old sucks!!! :-)

  3. Very exciting. I am in a similar position of having made 3d designs and printed via shapeways and library printers, but still have not bought my own yet...

    1. Based on how much I've been spending at Shapeways I'll have paid for this printer in about 4-5 months. ;-)

  4. Wow! This will open up a whole new world.

    1. Yes! Exciting ... ideas are flowing through me :-)

  5. Just in case anyone isn't aware of the risks, 3d print materials are believed to be a health hazard. Definitely not to be done in a space without good active ventilation.

    1. Interesting. I hadn't seen anything about that. Makes sense though as it is melting plastic.

  6. Jay, you never do anything by half, very informative once again and much appreciated.

    1. Thanks Pat! I see you've been busy! I'm flooded with ideas for what I can do with the printer :-)

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  8. Jay. Where did you get this fort model? Did you make it yourself or is it one you acquired from another designer? I am looking for something like this to print for my Blood And Plunder games. Thanks sir!

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