Geekery: This 3D Printing Method Sucks


… and it’s going to change the way we play games.

We’ve been talking movies a lot thanks to SDCC. I thought I’d switch gears and write about something different today… something that has direct applications to your game table.

Hydrographic or water transfer printing is a way to apply a printed pattern to a 3D object. It was patented in the early 80s, and you likely have an object in your house that has gone through the process. The pattern is printed on polyvinyl alcohol hydrographic film and suspended in water, an activator is applied to the sheet. An object – made of any material you can apply regular paint to – primed with special paint is dipped into the water. It picks up the film in the process.

It’s used a lot in making custom vehicle components, bicycle helmets, etc.

Recently ETH Zürich – in partnership with Disney Research (be prepared to fall into a rabbit hole when you click on that) – took the concept further with a new process: computational thermoforming. This method “converts the texture of a given digital 3D model into a pre-distorted image that we transfer onto a plastic sheet. During thermoforming [applying the sheet to the object with heat], the sheet deforms to create a faithful physical replica of the digital model.”



Becomes this…


Check out what we’ll be seeing from tabletop game manufacturers in the not so distant future…

The hardware required to do this uses off the shelf parts, and the manufacturing possibilities with this are endless. Table top terrain, for example.

vac form terrain

You can read the whole paper on the process here.


What other table top game applications would you apply this to?

  • Vepr

    Nice. Looks like terrain will be the easiest and first step.

    • I have a feeling we’re going to see it in board game components as soon as they get an automatic alignment process worked out.

  • Aezeal

    Not read the link (disclaimer). Does seem to have some limitations if thing have overhanging edges

  • nurglitch

    People who tout 3D printing as a threat to mass production fail to comprehend the industrial revolution.

    • EnTyme

      Meh! Every few months, someone seems to confuse the term “3D Printer” with “Matter Replicator”. At least this article admits that this is just a cool process that could possibly be used as another means to do something we can already do.

      • Jonathan B.

        Tea, Earl Grey, hot!
        Damn, too soon?

        • Dennis J. Pechavar

          Never too soon.

  • G Ullrich

    Seems like an advanced evolution of vacuum formed modeling – so ending up with a process less machine tool intensive to get the output and maybe more detailed?

    • Yep – the big advance with this is software that creates the designs that are applied to the 3D object. It uses machinery that’s readily available, and produces a more detailed product.

  • Brett Wagner

    This is just really fancy vacuforming. All the same limitations apply.

  • Old zogwort

    Lol this isn’t 3d printing. The first links are just a very fancy way to apply stickers / water decals. The last link is just a new way of vacuum forming.

    • My original title – “Computational Thermoforming is Awesome” – wasn’t catchy enough, it seems.

  • jcdent

    While this isn’t 3D printing, not by a long shot, I do really hate painting…

  • Old zogwort

    For those who like it check out this link of Adam who explains how to use a traditional vacuum former.

  • euansmith

    This looks interesting, but it doesn’t come anywhere near the flexibility and quality of a sweat shop.

    • Neal Laxman

      Pesky technology taking jobs away from hard working child labourers.

  • Cylux

    “and it’s going to change the way we play games.”

    Will it though? Will it REALLY?

    • memitchell

      It frees up a lot of hard working child labourers to play games with us.

      • William Bellamy

        But then they’d be unemployed and couldn’t afford the models.

  • Anti-Gravity

    Some textured paint on those formed hills could make nice easy terrain for sure, and very quickly/cheaply as well.

  • Hedwerx

    Meh, I wouldn’t buy it. It looks awful.

    • twincast

      Get rid of the gloss and it would look pretty good IMO. Obviously not as good as a detailed (quasi-)professional paint job but much better than the average pre-painted stuff.