Tuesday, 21 January 2014

3D scanned and printed figurines

The last year has seen a proliferation of companies offering to scan and 3D print figures. As a 3D print service bureau, Lee 3D has been asked to print figures for a number of businesses selling these services. In the same period we have had a large number of enquiries from entrepreneurs looking into this as a business opportunity. With the availability of low cost scanning systems it would seem that interest in this business opportunity is only going to increase. 

From our experience it is clear that there is a wide range of prices being quoted to end customers for figurines. Famously Asda offered a promotional 3D scanned product from £40 and certainly at the other end of the range costs are in the thousands. This blog attempts to give an indication as to what might cause such a wide variety of prices .

Creating 3D scanned and printed figures is made up of three distinct steps. These are scanning the figure, preparing the data and 3D printing the figurine. The middle step is the part that probably makes the biggest difference to the overall cost and also to the final quality of the part. 

3D Scanning Figures
Currently there are three main methods used to scan a figure, though new scanners and techniques are appearing at regular intervals. One process uses an array of fifty or more SLR cameras arranged around the subject. All cameras take a picture simultaneously and the 3D form is created from the digital images using a process known as photogrammetry. The second method of capture is using a hand held laser scanner that is moved in across and around the subject to build up a cloud of points in space that represent the figure. Thirdly a scan can be made using the structured light capture process. This requires perhaps 20 or more separate captures of the subject to build up a 360 degree physical model.

For the person being scanned there is a difference in the experience between these processes. For the photogrammetry route the subject stands in the center of the a ring of cameras and the image is taken instantaneously. The hand held laser and structured light methods requires more time and may require the subject to hold their pose for quite some time.

3D scanning is probably a bit like photography 100 years ago. In many old photographs people look very stiff, partly because they had to stand still for the required exposure time. Similarly the relationship between photographer and 3D scan operator is essential to get the subject into a relaxed pose that will also work for 3D printing. It has become typical for subjects to be asked to hold hands against their bodies for two good reasons. Hands are notoriously difficult to scan and exposed fingers easily break off both in the 3D printing process and afterwards. So there is an art to getting a person into a comfortable pose - with their hands protected.

3D Scan Data Clean Up
To get any level of quality in the resulting 3D print, time needs to be spent on data clean up. A skilled artist may be able to produce something passable in an hour or so. To get good results will take half to a full day. To produce exceptional 3D scan work, the data will be captured in sections, stitched together, details may be physically remodeled, colour touched up and corrected. Exceptional work takes time and of course, costs more money.

3D Scan by Sample & Hold
3D Print by Lee 3D
When looking at a 3D printed figure, you can usually tell straightaway if the quality is good. A good 3D scanned and printed figure has vitality in the same way that a good photographer captures some of the essence of the living subject. This is partly to do with the original scan but it is also down to the detailing by a 3D artist in data cleanup. 

At the other end of the scale a poorly scanned and/or 3D printed figure may look deformed and strangely fossilised and may also show the results of poor lighting and colouring. Poor quality may be a result from the work of any stage in the process not being completed to a high standard. 

Colour 3D Printing
Currently the best 3D printers for printing scanned figures are the ZPrinter 650 or Project 660 (pretty much the same thing). This machine prints CMYK binders on to a white plaster based powder. Printed parts need time spent on post processing to increase quality. Poor quality colour 3D prints look powdery and pale. Again producing a good result takes a little time but nothing compared to the time required in the data clean up phase of the process. 

A 3D printer ain't no vending machine, it needs a good operator to get good results. To produce a good colour 3D print the printer needs to be set up properly, parts need to be orientated correctly in the build and parts need to be finished manually. It is very easy to make a pig's ear of a colour 3D print of a figure; a high standard often requires more time and cost and always requires more care and attention.

High quality 3D scanned and 3D printed figurines require bespoke services and you can expect to pay a lot more for a great figurine than you would from a run of the mill low cost service. In future I expect that software used for optimising scanned figures will be improved allowing lower cost figurines to be produced. In the meantime the process heavily relies on the skill of the technicians. 

On a more general note, questions have been asked about whether this is a service that will gain popular interest. Not everyone has a body that looks great as a warts and all 3D scan. Perhaps this will remain a specialist service for those brave enough to see themselves so accurately portrayed!

Details of Sample and Hold image shown above
Creative Director : John Jolly
Client : The British Engineerium ( http://britishengineerium.org )
Subject : Gresham Blake ( http://www.greshamblake.com )
Scanned by: http://www.sampleandhold.co.uk/ 

For more information visit www.lee3d.co.uk

Friday, 3 January 2014

Lee 3D - 2013

The first months of Lee 3D have been pretty hectic. It has been immensely satisfying, we have had some great feedback and have completed well over a hundred jobs. 

Here are some of the key events that marked the year.

May 2013

  • Move into the Crimscott Street Studio
  • Website launched
  • The first ZPrinter 650 arrives

June 2013 

  • Busy printing student models for AA, UCL, South Bank and East London Universities

July 2013

  • Launched the first version of "Guide To Modelling for 3D Print in AEC"
  • Printing work for the Design Museum, Designer in Residence Programme

August 2013

  • Experimenting with colour 
  • More kit arrives

September 2013

  • Christabelle joins Lee 3D 
  • Design Museum, Designers in Residence launch
  • Visit to TCT Show at the NEC

October 2013

  • Major update to  "Guide To Modelling for 3D Print in AEC"
  • "Hornitation" on show at the Sea Foundation in the "Eindhoven triangle"

November 2013

  • Expand into new machine workshop
  • Second ZPrinter 650 arrives

December 2013

  • A busy month with some interesting work ahead in 2014
  • Chain necklace - R&D in consumer colour 3D printing