Monday, 25 February 2013

The Second Attempt

Being rather pleased with my first attempt, I decided to try for a second set of fighters. I have a collection of 4 different fleets for Firestorm:Armada and I thought I'd try and make some suitable fighter models for them as well. After all, I hate paper tokens.

The next set would be the Aquans -- an alien race of sea creatures whose ship designs are reminiscent of Earth's fish. The original designs always reminded me of the Mon Calamari ships from Star Wars. I'm certain that's where the original designers borrowed their ideas. Here's a few painted ones from my collection.

I wanted my fighters to match the style, so I searched for some pictures of fish and started doing doodles. Lots and lots of doodles. I used similar motifs: a smooth hull, pod-like weapons, and little thrusters on the ends of sticks. After a while I came up with these:

The assault craft was based loosely on a lamprey, and the interceptor looks a bit like a goldfish. The fighter definitely "squidy" and the other two look more like sea rays or a trilobite. Again the 3D printing went fairly well. I made a few modifications after the first run. The Assault craft was beefed-up to look like the image above; the original was more of a tapered tube.
Here's some painted examples:

I was surprised, these fighters were even more popular than the previous "reptilian" designs. I had even more requests for copies of these. Now, if you were following along, you'll know that I made these with mostly myself in mind. I never intended to go into miniature sales. However, the forum comments were very encouraging, and I thought other people might enjoy them as much as I do. What the heck, I'll see if I can distribute them somehow.

The last thing I wanted to do was start mass-producing these things. I knew I wasn't going to get rich selling space fighters, but I sure didn't want to loose money! I didn't really want to open a store with stock and packaging. I already have an architectural model business to run. But how was I going to provide them? I had worked out some pricing for 3D printing these on my machine, but the overall cost/fighter was a bit high, and I needed to run sets of 40-50 to make it worthwhile. One fellow was brave enough to make an order and it shipped without any issues, but there weren't any other takers. If I was going to make these available I needed to make smaller sets for a lower price. Eventually I solved the problem, but I'll explain that in a following post...

You can have some of these 3D printed for yourself from Shapeways. You'll find them listed as the "Aquatic" fighters in my shop.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Wait a minute, what the hell is a 3D printer?

Good question!
Many people have already heard of these machines on youtube or the news etc, but just in case I'll make it clear. I'm going to mention these devices often, so I'll do my best to refer to this post when it comes up. I'll also go over some of the terminology I use here.

  A 3D printer is a catch-all term for any type of machine that builds real physical objects from a computer design. It's sort of like a "replicator" from Star Trek -- but very primitive! There are many different kinds and they all work in slightly different ways. The technology has been around for a while, but these machines are only just beginning to reach a build-quality and sale price that is useful for the average designer. Their popularity is starting to bloom.

My company, Monolith Architectural Models, has a 3D printer. It's a V-Flash from 3D Systems. Here's a dorky video. Most of the time I use it for business purposes, but I do sneak in some hobby projects every once in a while. Shhhh!

What do they do? 

They build stuff. Any stuff. If you can model an object in 3D on the computer, you can have a 3D printer make the object for you. No sculpting, no milling, no gluing. Most of them use some kind of plastic material, but there are other options like wax, paper, metal, ceramics, and even chocolate.

How do they work?

Like I said, they are all different, but the general idea is the same. They deposit material in layers, stacking the layers as they go and adding "thickness" to the object. Make sense?
Well think of it like this: Take a ball, and slice it into very thin layers one at a time. The first layer is a very small circle, the next slightly bigger, and so is the next. This carries on until you make it to the middle -- the biggest circle -- then the circles get smaller and smaller until you get to the last slice.
A 3D printer works the same way, depositing material in the shape of the first slice, then building the second slice on top, followed by the next, and the next, and the next, until it's all done.

How the material is placed is the part that is usually different. Some squirt hot plastic droplets close together, some use a UV laser to cure resin liquids into solids, some use a hot laser to fuse powdered particles together, etc... There is more than one way to skin a cat.

How my V-Flash works

I'll explain the process step by step:
Check the Glossary if you don't recognize the terms.
  1. Design an object in CAD.
  2. Save it as an STL file, and send it to the 3D printer.
  3. In the V-Flash software create the build file (place it on the virtual build-pad, rotate it, duplicate it, etc) and then prepare the machine itself by inserting the build pad and cleaning the screens.
  4. Start the build, and come back in a few hours when it's done.
  5. Take the completed build out, clean it, then cure it. 
  6. Remove the build from the build pad and trim off the supports, file/sand the part to the desired finish. 
Sounds easy. Well there are plenty of ways to screw it up. If your CAD file has problems like "multiple shells" or isn't "watertight" it may not turn out very well. Rotating and placing the build properly on the build pad is an art, not a science. If you don't wash it well you'll cure goo all over your nicely printed details. And sometimes the machine throws you for a loop by failing mechanically in some surprising way.
It's a lot of trial and error. Always be prepared for "do-overs" and never leave a build until the 11th hour.

Quick Glossary

Here's some defined terms to help you along if you get lost. I'll throw them around without thinking, but I'll do my best to cross-link when I think of it.

CAD = Computer Assisted Drafting/Design. The process of creating a 3D model of an object on the computer. It's like a drawing or a set of plans. A CAD file is a computer file that contains this information. There are as many file formats as there are CAD software programs. Some of them are compatible and some are not. This is a source of headaches.

.STL = STereoLithography file. A very popular file format that many 3D printers can read. Most 3D printers can't read CAD files directly, so you have to convert them when you are all ready to go. This is usually very easy.

The Build = the thing you are making, and the process of making it. "Yawn, I'm still waiting for the build to complete."

Build Pad = the thing that the build is attached to as it's worked on. The build pad holds the build in place, otherwise it would slide around and turn out rather badly.

Supports = These are the little pegs/posts/pins that hold the model to the build pad, and keep the build stable and from falling apart while it's built. These are usually generated by software, and can't be easily modified.

Multiple Shells = a CAD term for a model that's not connected properly. It doesn't happen in the real world. A CAD model may look like it's attached to itself everywhere, but sometimes the models masses don't quite meet each other by a very very small amount. It can be difficult to detect, until you 3D print it and it falls apart. It can cause a big problems with supports, since the computer will think these are all unique objects and try and support them independantly.

Watertight = is a CAD term for models that are completely enclosed and that have no holes to the "interior" area. The interior area being the part that you want to remain solid. Here's a technical explanation. But in layman's terms, imagine you are filling the solid area with water. If the water can come out, it's obviously not watertight. A model that is not watertight confuses the printer, since it no longer knows what's inside and what's outside. These problems are usually found at corners when a model objects surfaces don't meet properly.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

So how did this get started?

It was about a year ago. After some searching I had just gotten into a new game called Firestorm Armada, by Spartan Games. It features large spaceship models in a mostly wet-navy setting. The rule system isn't bad, it plays quickly and easily. Some of the model sculpts are very nice, and usually that wins me over every time. The visual styles captured my imagination, many of them derived from Sci-fi shows and movies I enjoyed when I was younger.
The game includes rules for playing with small fighter craft (think x-wing or tie fighter), but they are represented as paper tokens. I hate paper tokens. If they aren't all dog-eared and peeling apart, they blow away every time I sneeze. I looked online for alternative model fighter sources, but none of them matched the the styles of the ships they were intended to support, and most of them don't look very good. I decided I'd try and make my own. After all, I have the ultimate tools; I run a model making workshop!

I wanted my fighters to look like they "belonged" to the fleet. I also wanted them to look original and reasonable. Everyone has a different idea of what "reasonable" is, but mine is free of useless do-dads that serve no purpose other than style. I like vessels that are cleaner and simpler than most.
Another design factor is size. These fighter craft needed to be very small. They could never be produced to scale with the ships they would accompany (they'd be specks of dust) but they needed to be as small as possible -- no more than 1/4" (6mm) cubed. The shapes needed to be simple, and there are minimum sizes to make sure they 3D print cleanly.

I made the Sorylian fighters first. The Sorylians are lizard-like aliens, supposed to be math-loving philosophers. I figured they would make no-nonsense fighters. The chasis would have to be efficient and modular. All 4 models of craft would use the same hull with different add-ons for the role it was expected to play (fighter, interceptor, bomber, assault boat).
Here's the first renders: I changed the names to ensure I wasn't infringing on a Trademark.

Very simple. They turned out rather well on the build pad. There were no problems 3D printing them. I ran 40 of them all at once. The build took about 1.5 hours, and used about $10 worth of printer material and a $5 pad. After washing and curing they needed to be clipped off the supports and sanded. Tiny holes needed to be drilled out of the bottoms so that they could be mounted on thin steel wire. The other end of the steel wire was glued into laser-cut black plastic base. The tiny ships were painted to match the larger models, and the steel wire was painted black. It was fairly easy.

The finished models looked something like this:

Here's the model vessels they are supposed to go along with:

When I showed them off on the forum, they were very popular. I received more than a few inquiries from fellow gamers interested in purchasing them. However, I had a problem with supply. It wasn't very economical to produce them in small amounts. It took a little while before I clued in to Shapeways. But that's another story.

If you want some, these models are available in my Shapeways shop as the "Reptilians" faction. With a different paint scheme they could be suitable for any number of other games representing another alien or human groups.


This blog space will be mostly used to display and discuss model spaceship designs. I'm really into imaginary spaceships. I've found enjoyment out of making my own spaceship models for table-top war games. I don't game as often as I would like, but I manage to sneak in a few hours of painting or modeling every week. I play a few other table-top games, mostly historical war games -- however they don't really offer the same kind of creative outlet so don't expect to see them here very often.

I design the fantasy ships in 3D with AutoCAD 2012, and then convert the file to an STL. This type of file is then sent to the Vflash 3D printer I have in my office. The physical model is produced within a few hours. It has to be washed, separated from the support material, and often filed/sanded smooth. It takes quite a bit of work, but nothing like traditional sculpting and molding. With modern technology it's so much easier to make your ideas a reality.

The concept of this blog is that I'll post up works in progress for people to make suggestions and comment. I really value your feedback, so fire-away. I may not always change my design to match your suggestions, but I always listen. If I didn't want to hear any comments I wouldn't post it up.
After a model is done, I'll show you the 3D printed "build" and then probably a painted version of the model will soon follow.

If you really like my spaceship designs you can order them from my Shapeways shop. I'll include a link whenever appropriate. Some of the larger vessels are a little expensive, but most war-gamers will find the small vessels affordable.