After many days of labor and tinkering, I am publicly documenting my efforts making high-quality tabletop mecha miniatures using Shapr3D and a FDM printer. It took a very long journey to get to this point. I created my first 3D printed, multi-part, mecha miniature 17 years ago, and I’ve been tinkering with software and hardware ever since. So I’m well acquainted with what does and doesn’t work with different consumer printer types.
To begin, why print mecha miniatures in smaller scales on a FDM machine? Affordable, consumer-grade resin printers (SLA, DLP, LCD) have recently become cheap and plentiful. They offer superior print quality for the same price (sometimes cheaper!) Their software is simpler to use, and with far fewer settings to master. Why bother with PLA?
In one word, resin. Dealing with UV-curing resin is not easy or simple (even if resin printer operation is). It emits a high degree of VOCs (violatile organic compounds), cannot be disposed of down a sink, or thrown away in the trash. It also can’t be exposed to daylight or it cures. That means dealing with the stuff in the most dangerous place you can use it with human beings: an enclosed, indoor room. So prepare to use nitrile gloves, a mask, and a way to vent toxic fumes outdoors. Not everyone has a working space capable of dealing with this, especially for some hobby miniatures. And I need to be risk-averse with a compromised immune system.
Conversely, FDM printers are desktop-friendly. There’s something satisfying about revving up a reliable machine with no need for enclosures, toxic resins, or messy post-cleanup and curing. It’s as easy as using a deskjet printer. And what if I told you I can print miniatures, using a mere 0.2mm layer height, that pass for resin prints? At least for table top wargaming. I may not necessarily use them as mold masters for mass production. But unless they break out a magnifying glass, my friends can’t really tell the difference. I have really nailed a process for them. Chances are, with the millions of machines built or sold in the past few years, you may have a FDM printer already. So why not put that cheap PLA filament to good use?
I. Software and Design
I discovered the first part of my new pipeline when my wife bought me a regular iPad (not even a Pro) and Apple Pencil for my birthday in 2021. I’d drooled over 3D apps before when I tried and failed to get them to work on my iPhone. So I went back to the App Store, hopeful this time. I tried a slew of 3D apps like uMake, Onshape, Fusion 360, and Shapr3D. I boiled my search down between uMake and Shapr, but it became quickly apparent that Shapr was the right choice for 3D printing. It is one of the easiest modeling apps I’ve learned, on any platform.
Using an Apple Pencil, I can create faster than I ever could with a mouse. And when it comes to designing tabletop mecha miniatures, the tools cannot be beaten with a stick. Plus Shapr exports directly to .stl, while I needed a buggy 3d party plugin to do it with the free version of Sketchup. It doesn’t hurt that they have a Windows version. So if my iPad snuffs it, I could switch over to a Surface or tablet with a stylus. Sketchup isn’t bad, it’ll always have a place in my heart. But for the most part, Shapr3D just works.
II. Hardware and Printing
The second part of the pipeline happened when 3D printer manufacturer Anycubic debuted the Vyper in 2021. This relatively inexpensive FDM printer has a self-leveling, heated print bed with a removable magnetic surface. After working with manual leveling glass beds on older machines, this is a godsend. The build quality is excellent for the price. Although Anycubic is better known for their resin printers (like the Photon) their FDM printers are rock solid reliable. A Creality Ender 3 this is not! No more guessing if my bed was properly leveled, or fighting poor bed adhesion. It is also very easy to dial in compared to older FDM printers. By having a reliable, easy to use printer, I don’t have to fix much. The hardware side of the equation was complete.
Note: you don’t have to have a Vyper. A Creality Ender 3 S1, BIQU B1 SE Plus, Artillery Genius Pro, or any good FDM printer will do. Just get one that can print reliably. Automatic bed leveling would be a nice bonus. It will make your life so much easier.
Every printer has its own personality, so to speak. Different build types give different results (and have their own unique quirks). For example, my Vyper requires a little fine tuning of the z-depth every time I re-level the thing. This is also why spending more for quality of life features (usually) prevents some headaches. It is what it is. However, there are some universal hardware settings that ensure every printer does what it says on the tin. I’ll explain the common problems in depth and how to fix or avoid them.
III. Slicer Settings
The third part is the slicer settings I figured out over the course of a couple years printing with Cura. You can’t just take the famous (infamous?) Siepie Cura settings and go. The magic sauce is a combination of print speeds, support settings, and the free Cura plugin Custom Supports by Krasimir Stefanov. This is the most important part of my method, honestly. FDM slicer settings are absolutely critical for getting decent (let alone great) results in your prints.
Finally, I’ll explain the pipeline over three blog posts to keep the instructions simpler and more concise:
1. I’ll show you how to design your mecha miniatures for printing, and how I use Shapr3D as a bonus.
2. I’ll show how I print my parts, and how to avoid the worst pitfalls with printing. Hint: you don’t need anything fancy to do this, a common bowden tube printer will do.
3. I’ll show my Cura settings, and go over which ones you’ll need (regardless of printer) to try this yourself.
I’ll post Part I soon so make sure you sign up to be notified. After all, I still have mecha to make!
If you wish to be notified when Part I goes live, please sign up below.
I don’t want to tell you your bussiness and mean no disrespect, but everything I looked into showed that FDM printers actually put off a high amount of VOCs, or more specifically airborn particulate since it’s melting plastic on an open surface and cools slowly. Don’t mean to be the “um actually” guy, but would hate to see you get cancer so I just thought i should share this. stay safe and keep up the good work, love your stuff man.
“When fused filament fabrication 3D printers are tested this way, they tend to emit a limited number of chemicals (highly dependent on the filament material used) and a fairly high quantity of particles, many of which are ultrafine particles that can be easily inhaled and carry volatile organic compounds (VOCs) deep into the respiratory system. When the vat photopolymerization printer was tested, the stereolithography system produced a greater variety of VOCs than extrusion-style 3D printers but far less particulate and hardly any ultrafine particles.”
here’s a link to the FDM printer article.
Thank you for your comment!
You would be correct that FDM isn’t immune to producing VOCs. However, it really boils down to what type of filament you use when it comes to safety. PLA, for example, is pretty safe. It emits a small amount of microparticles (notably lactide) that are not out of the ordinary from everyday use (cooking and cleaning emit similar amounts).
ABS, nylon, and PETG are another matter. ABS, in particular, emits quite a bit of styrene as a gas. You definitely don’t want to breath that.
FYI, I exclusively use PLA. I should have been more careful about mentioning safety and VOCs with FDM printers in my post. I’ll try to be more specific in the future.
Note: For further information, I recommend taking a look at this study published in Environmental Science and Technology that looks at ultrafine particles (UFPs) and VOCs produced by FDM printers:
It provides the most comprehensive (though not exhaustive) study on FDM filaments I’ve found so far. More work needs to be done in this area, for sure.
Thanks for the clarfication! I’m looking into getting an FDM printer soon for larger prints, so this is very useful. so far my current take on all of it is just keep it somewhere else when you print. I’ve been keeping it in the garage currently, but I’m starting to think better ventilation or filitering might still be important long term. i know particulate wont stay airborn forever, but it can’t be good to have laying around.