The short answer is no. But it is going to make some things a whole lot easier.
After having spent the last three months with a 3D printer of my own, I've found many cosplay problems that can be solved by 3D printing — and a plenty that won't.
Since the start of the year I've been playing with an entry level printer — the Idea Builder 3D Printer. If you're interested in the specs of that printer and how it runs, you can read my extended thoughts on the hardware in my review over on Gizmodo. For now, I want to discuss the potential — and the limitations — of using 3D printing for cosplay.
While 3D printers exist that can print in everything from paper to metal, most cosplayers will work using a process called ‘fused deposition modeling’ or FDM — which lays down successive layers of molten plastic to create a finished piece. From there, the plastic model can be sanded, filed, primed, painted or moulded to be cast in resin.
Is 3D Printing Cheating?
Cosplayers have never really been sure about 3D printing. Is it cheating to just press a button and receive your costume in a couple of hours, fully assembled? Of course, that's not exactly how it works, but it's still spurred plenty of debate within the community.
Cosplay is a hobby that, at its core, is about crafting. It's about going down to your local Bunnings and Spotlight and MacGyvering together a costume from bits and pieces that definitely aren't being used for their intended purpose. Even though people are making money from it, cosplay has always had at least a twinge of amateurism to it, but that's part of its charm.
3D printing, on the other hand, is one more step towards professional fabrication. It seems at once too easy and too inaccessible. More than that, it's not fair — how many people can afford a $2000 machine to make cosplays?
3D printing isn't as hands-on as traditional methods of fabrication. You won't be getting down and dirty with a pile of clay or a sheet of worbla, but you'll still have to create the model that is eventually going to be printed — which is no mean feat in itself.
3D printing could easily be a technology that opens the hobby up to a wider range of people — to people who are skilled with a keyboard and a mouse in front of them, but not so great at working with their hands. It may be a different skill set to what most cosplayers are used to using, and it certainly has the potential to deliver some amazing results — but it's definitely not cheating.
What Won't It Change?
If you're interested in cosplay, 3D printing or general geekery you may have seen a gorgeous set of 3D printed golden fantasy armour, modelled by Felicia Day — with the headline "THE FUTURE OF COSPLAY, TODAY!" It sounds great, doesn't it? Print a whole suit of armour, more intricate than anything you could easily make by hand. Easy? Well... not quite.
As the pieces of armour are so large, the printing had to be outsourced to Shapeways — a 3D printing company with millions of dollars worth of equipment. In the video above you can see that the process, while fascinating, isn't something that cosplayers are likely to be able to do on a home desktop printer. Full suits of 3D printed armour are still a while away for cosplayers without deep pockets.
One Australian cosplayer is already making fairly extensive 3D printed parts and costumes — Sunday Cosplay.
Early on he was known for printing a full Samus suit, and has continued to print everything from geeky knick-knacks to an impressive array of costumes on his fleet of printers.
People like Sunday Cosplay are helping to bring 3D printing more into the mainstream of cosplay, though even he admits that it's too expensive for the average cosplayer to get into as extensively as he has — he estimates that he's spent around $15k to $20k on his printing equipment.
While printers are getting cheaper and cheaper — finally dropping under the $1000 mark even after the Australia Tax with Aldi's $499 printer — it's still quite an investment to buy a printer with a large enough build space to print large costume pieces.
When it comes down to it, even though you can break large costume pieces up into smaller pieces to print, it's still cheaper and easier to fabricate most armour in a more traditional way. But if you can't print whole suits of armour, what can you print?
What Will It Change?
It was while printing a raven skull (because it looked cool) that I realised printers don't have to be able to print large costume pieces to be useful to cosplayers. The raven skull print was fairly simple, easy and quick to print and came out looking surprisingly nice at the end of it.
The thing is, this skull is something that would be incredibly difficult to make through any traditional means. Sculpting it would be fiddly and painful, with carved out sections and tiny details. Casting it in resin would be near impossible with so many little holes — or at least more trouble than it was worth. On the printer, it came out perfectly.
I've always been a fan of resin casting, but some things are just way too fiddly to cast. The longer I spent with my printer, the more I realised that 3D printing fills those gaps perfectly. Jewellery pieces, intricate brooches or pendant, tiaras — when you put your mind to it, you'd be surprised how many cosplay pieces can fit on even the smallest build plate.
While it won't allow you to print an entire costume at the press of a button, the printer works great to augment other tried-and-true cosplay techniques. You may not be able to print an entire breastplate, but you can certainly print the intricate detailing that goes on top of it.
Printers are still pretty expensive for something that's mostly useful for tiny details — but the same can be said of embroidery machines, which sit in the same price range as many 3D printers. We're already seeing a sort of share community spring up, where cosplayers with 3D printers share the resource with their friends. It's likely this is how 3D printing will continue on to gain wider usage within the cosplay community, too — at least until 3D printers become even cheaper.
3D printing is becoming increasingly relevant and accessible to cosplayers. The winner of the last cosplay competition I judged was awarded the grand prize for designing and printing major parts of his costume, and smaller printed pieces were surprisingly common in other people's costumes as well.
3D printing definitely has a place in the future of cosplay, and though it has yet to reach the mainstream in the present, you're likely to see it popping up more and more.