• 3D Printing and Historical Reenacting

    Recently 3D printing has crossed a threshold which has made it practical and useful for reenacting. However, it is still a long way from having the dramatic life altering impact that many people seem to think. I wanted to take some time to put my thoughts on 3D printing into writing to help other people understand what 3D printing will mean for historical reenacting and help some people decide if they want to get involved and how it may effect their reenacting experience.


    First, I have to make it clear that any form of 3D printing is a hobby/profession in its own right and figuring it out completely takes quite a lot of time and commitment to keep things running. Even after about a years worth of tinkering, my own 3D printers have only played a very small role in manufacturing and while the potential is there, there are many roadblocks. It is true that, when everything is working perfectly, the only skill you need is the ability to fill up the machine and push the print button, but getting to that point - and staying at that point - can be far more involved than many people want to get. Problem solving is big part of the process. These are really printers in name only, they are more comparable to CNC shop equipment like mills and lathes than to a home printer.


    The types of 3D printing that are most widely available essentially come in two flavors; filament based printing or resin based printing. In both forms of printing, a 3D item is cut into hundreds or thousands of thin layers which the printer will then print, one at a time, until the layers stack up to form a copy of the item. 

    • In filament based printing, a small wire of material is melted and then the printer essentially draws each layer of the item almost like a pencil on paper. 
    • In resin printing, a light or a laser essentially exposes a photo of each layer. This is either done by a laser that draws the layer or a spotlight and an LCD masking screen which creates an entire layer in a few seconds. 

    Its only in the past few years that filament printing has, in my opinion, reached the lowest acceptable threshold for finished reenactment parts and resin printing has only become accessible (affordable) in that past couple years also. There are many other variations of 3D printing including metal printers but most are still several years away off from playing a role in reenacting in a meaningful way. Very capable filament and resin printers have become cheap enough that they have a potential to make a big impact.


    The difference between these two types of printing is one of visual quality and physical properties.

    • Filament prints can be made from a large variety of materials ranging from hard plastics, to rubber-like materials and even some composites that rival metals for strength but these generally have a poor surface finish and require some work to make look good. The finished quality is good enough and tough enough to throw around, loose and destroy in the field. The individual layers are typically 0.1mm to 0.4mm thick.
    • A resin printer can produce ultra detailed parts of extremely high visual quality, but the resins do not have as vast of a selection of physical properties and, while they can be fairly strong, they will chip and shatter. While there are some flexible resins, they are all still poorly suited for high impact applications and, as a general rule, they would be unsafe to use for certain things because they can produce sharp shrapnel and break too easily. The individual layers are typically 0.01mm to 0.05mm thick. 

    Basically with filament, you see the layers that make up the part and with resin you almost can't see them at all. 


    Visual accuracy is the most important aspect of any reproduction and any deviation from visual perfection is generally made to accommodate some other aspect, whether that is cost, ease of manufacture, ability to manufacture, physical properties, or general function. In a perfect world, we would have both a perfect looking replica and everything else we want, but we are not there yet and likely never will be. We must always consider how stuff will be used to determine the correct mix for each item. We can essentially break this down into two groups; display or field use.

    • Display items need to be as accurate looking as possible and will generally only see light use and handling so a lot of other qualities, like durability, can be lacking to achieve the right look.
    • Field use items on the other hand, must come as close as possible to looking the part, but likely need to be cheaper, safer, more durable or perform some sort of function. 

    You can probably already tell the general direction this is going; resin prints are largely best for display and filament prints are largely best for field use. It is possible to make resin prints into flawless, visually accurate, reproductions and its generally fairly easy to finish these parts. Filament prints are very usable but very rough and often just not worth putting a great deal of extra time into. For example, it is better to use a filament printed mortar round or grenade than a Huggies juice bottle. For that purpose, you are replacing something heinous with something reasonably good looking.


    Prints can only be as good as the file they are made from and good files for WWII stuff at least, are non existent. The internet is awash with 3D printable files of all sorts of WWII things but basically none of them are any good. Most are equivalent to maybe a cheap toy or video game rendering at best (likely based on photos instead of having the actual object in hand). It seems as if the people with the ability to create decent CAD drawings either have only a passing interest in history and 3D printing or simply have nothing good to work from. Its also likely that people that make good files don't always like to share but this will probably change in time as more and more people get into this and the good stuff just gets out there. I have never printed a single file found online because they are all that bad. If you do not have the ability to create 3D drawings or know someone that can do good work for you, this may be a non starter. 


    Printing is not a very quick process for anything sizable but this is very forgivable when you consider that a machine is doing all the work for you and with a little planning this isn't hard to work around. For example, if multiple reenactors in a unit all had printers, it would be fairly easy to have each one print a handful of something specifically for an event; whether that is grenades, or mortar rounds or anything else. These sorts of projects have traditionally been very difficult to organize and getting people to commit time to learning how to make something and then actually doing it was like pulling teeth. Perhaps with 3D printing, we will only need to teach them how to print and take care of the rest for them. Its potentially worth the wait. 


    Trouble shooting and maintaining a printer can be extraordinarily frustrating. There is a wealth of helpful and almost helpful information out there so you can generally figure out most problems, but some answers will take a long time to find. Fixing 3D printing issues is harder to figure out than cleaning a print head or removing a paper jam on a normal printer. This is why I say it is a hobby all of its own. I would encourage people to give it a go if they know someone capable of creating files and helping figure things out, but it is a lot like putting together a completely new reenacting impression, except its for something that is likely completely foreign to you and just like impressions, you need to get into it because of a real interest and not because you have to. You're not buying a printer, its a whole new thing to learn. You're basically buying a new hobby, not just a supplement to an existing hobby.


    Big prints are risky but its normally the big prints that we want the most. As much as it sucks to have a small print fail, when bigger prints fail its just tragic and you will have failures, lots of them. Even with a normal paper printer you will experience errors from time to time but with 3D printing, if any one of those individual layers goes wrong, you may very well end up scrapping the entire print. Getting a 3D print correct is a bit like putting a 2000 page print job through your home printer and expecting every page to be flawless. You will need to accept that there is no such thing as a perfect print and there will always be some kind of flaw or small tweak you will need to make or simply decide to live with. Printer quality is getting better all the time but we are still a ways away from getting a completely flawless print every time.


    Then there is the cost of 3D printing. Decent quality printers have been available for a while now and have come way down in price. There are even some dirt cheap machines that can produce good parts. Machines are available for less than $100 that produce OK-ish parts. Average quality machines are in the $250-$1000 range. Materials can range from very cheap to stupid expensive. Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. Every now and then you will find a well priced material or printer that outperforms your expectations. Most printers also have some consumable parts which will need changed from time to time. Despite what many proponents of 3D printing say, it is a very wasteful process and is, from my experience, on par with many traditional manufacturing processes in the long run. In theory it should be more efficient but that often is not the reality. The often overlooked overhead expenses add up fast. Because it really is a form of hobby, most of the people involved with 3D printing tend not to think about the sunk costs the way a business has to. I still struggle to price 3D printed components because of the shear amount of time they take to make. The advantage being that it is a machine's time as opposed to me physically making an item. When you start doing the math, you will quickly find that 3D prints are not the dirt cheap parts people seem to think they are; it's not a perpetual motion machine - you get out of it what you put in. 3D printing is only super cheap if you buy cheap and ignore everything else that goes into making a finished part. 


    I started looking into 3D printing because it allowed me to create some items that I simply could not have created before without spending a lot of money on machining. I have been exploring ways to actually use the printers to produce final products but this is a much harder endeavor when it comes to creating decent reproductions as there is just a higher standard that needs to be met that people don't often put on other 3D printing projects. If it doesn't look right, you can't use it, and if it breaks too easily, no one will want it. Slowly, I am finding a place for the process in my work. I do enjoy knowing that regardless of what I am doing at any given point in time, my printers are humming away making things and I get a lot of enjoyment out of thinking about the nearly endless possibilities, but reality keeps the pipe dreams grounded. In some ways, printing is like a never ending unit work party where a lot actually gets done. The printers never turn up with a pack of beer and put a complete halt to progress.


    There is a vast amount of potential for 3D printing to effect other forms of manufacturing like mold or die making, just as an example, but this is too broad of a topic to cover in this "short" blog post.


    There are still many technical hurdles I would like to see 3D printing overcome before I could really say its going to change everything, but there are other obstacles to consider as well. It will take a number of very dedicated and capable people to digitize enough WWII items well before 3D prints become commonplace in reenacting. Furthermore, 3D printing is still a hobby in itself and it would require people to branch out and learn. Many people will still find it more economical both in time and money to just to work their normal job that they know and are good at and contribute to making things by buying them. Specialization will always be efficient, 3D printing will not change that. Nearly everyone owns a home printer that is likely capable of printing decent paperwork from decent files and yet there still has never been a flood of home made repro paperwork into the hobby. A few unit projects here and there but most end up being made by a few dedicated people and the files to produce good stuff are normally never shared. This may very well be the direction 3D printing takes as well.


    3D printing is slightly easier and more versatile than previous production methods and it does have some other advantages, such as being economical to produce small quantities and make rapid design changes. That being said, 3D printing doesn't really provide us with any ability that didn't already exist; after all, we are talking about historical reproductions, so naturally the technology to make the stuff has also been around at least as long as the thing your reproducing. In the end, it will come down to whether or not people want to make stuff themselves or just buy it. Even when it is easy, it still takes time, energy and interest to reproduce anything. There have always been those people that make things, hopefully 3D printing will help bring more people into that group and advance the hobby. In the not so distant future, I can potentially see every reenacting unit wanting its members to own a printer and then providing them with support, instructions and decent files to print for a particular event or project. Ambitious, patient units with at least one or two tech savvy members will indeed want for very little. As a unit, they will be able to produce most of the things they could ever want and even potentially build large scale replicas of equipment or maybe even replica vehicles and other big kid toys; one piece at a time. But for now, printing is not quite easy enough to really change the way we reenact in a big way. It will take a lot of reenactors getting involved to turn it into something transformative for the hobby. Speaking for myself, you will be seeing more and more 3D printed parts available on the site and maybe even file downloads - I don't know exactly where this will all lead but its going in a good direction and will eventually serve to make the hobby even better.


  • ← Next Post Previous Post →