Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

How 3-D Printing Is Transforming the Toy Industry

Toymakers once made models by hand, but 3-D printing has changed all that.

  • October 28, 2010

Sculptors use whatever medium they find most effective for creating investment vehicles for the world’s idle rich, but the reality for many model makers is far different. Take, for example, DesignWorks, a UK-based studio full of people who do nothing but sculpt for a living, on deadline.

a raw print of a Cyberman from the television show Dr. Who realized on an envisionTEC Perfactory, courtesy IPF

DesignWorks creates prototypes and finished pieces in a variety of media (OK, a variety of plastics) for inventors, manufacturers and toy makers. LiDesignWorks used to create all of its models the old-fashioned way – by hand, in clay. And they still do; what’s changed since the invention of 3D scanners and stereolithography – now known by the more inclusive term 3D printing – is that they now have the ability to directly translate real world objects into miniature versions of themselves.

This transformation recalls the transition from illustration and painting to the age of photography, when the impression of a thing could be replaced by a representation of it that was in some sense more faithful, not to mention easier to produce and mass distribute. The difference is that 3D scanning and 3D printing have arrived in the age of computers, a time when all media, including photos, are endlessly manipulable.

A five-inch tall prototype Dalek printed on an envisionTEC Perfactory 3D printer, courtesy IPF

Unlike the hobbyists who seem to love 3D printing for its own sake, in the world of industrial model-making, this transition is driven almost entirely by the demands of the marketplace: Ed Barnett-Ward, Designworks director of sculpting, told Develop3D that the transition to 3D rapid prototyping cut development time from a year to just three months.

Working on the computer also allows both faithful reproductions of actor’s faces. This is especially important given that actors have likeness rights granting them veto power over any representation of their characters.

“But now scanning takes that out of the equation - if you’ve digitally scanned something it’s a true reflection,” says Barnett-Ward.

DesignWorks doesn’t own the expensive 3D printers it uses; it relies on Industrial Plastic Fabrications, a rapid prototyping bureau that got its hands on the UK’s first Objet Connex 500 3D printers, the first commercial multi-material 3D printer ever released.

Multi-material 3D printing with an Objet Connex 500 allows the combination of transparent and opaque resins, courtesy Objet

Photography also began as an art form with limited application and draconian requirements for resources and expertise – before the invention of photographic paper, photos were captured on metal plates and glass slides. As 3D printing and 3D scanners follow the same trend, we can expect a future in which our memories are captured and even realized in something other than the two dimensions to which we’ve become accustomed – and that this process will be as mundane then as the digital camera is now.

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