Short version: Cheaper, more precise machines and easy to obtain software now turn anyone into a spare room miniature designer. Sale does not have to be of the figures produced, simply of the plans needed for others to produce them. Your home copier suddenly becomes able to copy things in 3D and a whole new vista of opportunities opens up.
For established companies this could offer a powerful new distribution channel, assuming you have the wit to see it this way. Or you could try to squelch it in order to protect your current distribution channels, no matter how inefficient. Ask the music guys how that went.
The first shots have been fired when Games Workshop issued a takedown notice to Thingiverse under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The designs have been taken down, not for being copies of Games Workshop’s miniatures, but for being too close to Warhammer 40,000 in their look and feel. Hmmm.
This will no doubt be only the first move in a long-running saga, and while it’s easy to side with David against Goliath, sometimes Goliath has a point. The little guy keep hurling stones! The positives to come from 3D printing, at least at first, will be (hopefully) easier to obtain scenery for wargamers, buildings and the like are readily available. That models the scale of a Warhammer 40,000 tank are being made with detail close enough to worry the likes of Games Workshop is a sign of how quickly this technology is coming along.
This is not the last we’ll hear of homebrew 3D printing. See also our article on Kickstarter and games.