For centuries people have used miniatures for a variety of games, from complex battlefield re-creations to tactical movement in a role-playing game. In either case the miniature fabrication process is the same. A sculptor carefully crafts a master miniature and then creates a negative mold. That mold is then filled with a malleable material (plastic, pewter or lead) and mass production begins. Recent advancements in rapid prototyping now lead me to conclude that this ancient method may fade into obscurity.
Popsci has a great article and picture of an HP 3D printer that is the bleeding edge of what I believe is a revolution in miniature production. The printer precisely sprays thin layers of plastic to create small, plastic prototypes. At $17,500.00 the printer is clearly meant for professional engineers and others that need a physical item to speed their development process. That said, almost everything in our homes from the modern age started out incredibly expensive. Early PCs were luxury items with huge price tags. Now a decent computer is only $500.
Someday, not soon, perhaps [pullthis]10-15 years from now 3D printers will decorate every desktop [/pullthis]in America. At the very least, a local “3D print shop” offering inexpensive printing will be nearby. In either case the current business model for selling miniatures no longer functions. Rather than fight the inevitable, miniature companies need to evolve and start selling their designs for these devices, once they become ubiquitous. So instead of buying a box of soldiers, you buy an “Army CAD Pack” and “print” the miniatures yourself.
Sadly, I fully expect some hidebound companies to seek legal remedies and not adapt to this new model (cough..Games Workshop…cough). A quick 3D scan of any miniature instantly allows you copy the miniature precisely. I am certain restrictions to prevent “piracy” appear in the law books written by terrified intellectual property holders 10 minutes after the first consumer unit ships. Conversely, individual sculptors that no longer need the casting and retail infrastructure of a miniature company will sell directly to consumers. Selling open-source sculpts that are free of any legal entanglements. Personally, I see amazing sculptors at every miniature event I attend that simply do not want to do it full-time or cannot make a living at it because their fan-base is too small. No more. Much as digital publishing opened a floodgate of gaming products, 3D printing allows everyone to get into the miniature business.
I usually do not make predictions because I am so very often wrong, but this time I am extremely confident. 3D printing is simply too useful to disappear like Betamax. The industrial applications alone are legion and that drives innovation. Innovation that eventually leads to me printing out a new army.
Trask, The Last Tyromancer