by KENT MAGES, Custom Color 3D Printing

The word “customization” didn’t use to be part of the toy industry’s vernacular. Whether manufacturing board game pieces, action figures, dolls, or any other toys, the only path to profitability was to leverage injection molding processes to produce tens of thousands of copies of one product and then sell as many units as possible. That put companies fighting to gain market share at a significant competitive disadvantage because it wasn’t economically viable for them to manufacture and sell smaller batches. That is no longer the case thanks to the rapid maturation of 3D printing technology that not only makes smaller production runs feasible but also enables manufacturers to engage their customers during the design process.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is the process of data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners guiding the printer hardware to deposit material — layer by layer — in precise geometric shapes. It used to involve enormous machines that took hours to produce a single piece.

But today, companies including HP, MakerBot, and Rize have developed printers that can produce a piece in a matter of minutes. Manufacturers can leverage an array of materials, including Reusability Polyamide 12 (PA 12), a nylon material that allows for the creation of high-resolution parts with ultra-fine details; Polylactic acid (PLA) derived from corn starch that is very environmentally-friendly; Tough PLA, a chemically altered version of PLA that is more durable; and RIZIUM, a specially engineered thermoplastic that features an interlayer bond between each layer and ultra-low degree of moisture absorption, which allows parts to maintain stability, toughness, and color properties.

Toy companies no longer must spend money and time on the creation of molds or dyes required to create injection molded parts. They can produce complete products that are colorful and incredibly detailed without sacrificing durability or strength. And, they can do so in batches ranging between 1,000-10,000, while realizing a 15-30% cost savings compared to using injection molding processes.

Custom Color 3D Printing Chicago

Kent Mages discusses the benefits of 3D printing for the toy industry at Chicago Toy & Game Week ahead of the 2019 Chicago Toy & Game Fair (ChiTAG) as attendees go hands-on with 3D-printed props and cosplay weapons created using HP print technology.

This can be especially beneficial when preparing to launch a crowdfunding campaign, which has become the first option for new and growing toy companies trying to gain market share. Platforms like Kickstarter are proven avenues for quickly raising the capital they need to turn prototypes into finished products, while simultaneously building viral marketing campaigns that drive sales.

Consider the wild success story of board game developer CMON, which used Kickstarter in May 2012 to raise more than $700,000 for the development of its first game Zombicide. Since then, it has launched 38 additional Kickstarter campaigns and raised more than $55 million. Its latest campaign to raise funds for the second edition of Zombicide raised more than $2 million by the time it ended earlier this month.

CMON now has the brand name recognition that will virtually guarantee a successful launch. But for an unknown toy company preparing to launch its first crowdfunding campaign, the benefits of cost and time savings that 3D printing provides can mean the difference between success and failure. This can include building one-off prototypes and even the first run of products.

Rapid Prototyping of Action Figures

3D-printed action figure prototypes.

That’s not to say that only smaller toy companies can benefit from the use of 3D printing technologies. The unique customization capabilities that 3D printing offers can enable even the industry’s largest players to engage with consumers in more direct ways and create new revenue streams.

Whatever the size of the company, one of the first questions to address before investing in 3D printing technology is whether to purchase the hardware and materials or to partner with a 3D printing services provider.

The benefits of owning your own equipment include having complete control over the entire manufacturing process. The technology has advanced to the point where you don’t need to have someone on staff with CAD software expertise (or even any experience) or a computer science degree. Simply feed the machine the renderings and it does the rest.

The primary drawback of purchasing the equipment is cost, both in terms of up-front and ongoing maintenance. While hardware prices have come down slightly over the last several years, you can expect to make an initial investment upwards of $250,000 in manufacturing hardware and ancillary equipment. You will also be responsible for ongoing maintenance, and machine downtime has a direct impact on your production schedule and bottom line.

Partnering with a 3D printing services provider eliminates those risks and high costs, and enables you and your team to focus on business priorities, such as design, marketing, and sales. It’s a sector that is growing rapidly in the U.S., which means you don’t have to become locked into working with an overseas manufacturer. Partnering with a U.S.-based manufacturer can keep costs in line even as the current political climate and threats of new tariffs continue to breed uncertainty along the entire supply chain.

3D printing significantly reduces the costs of manufacturing smaller batches of toys and enables companies to introduce new levels of product customization that were not possible even a few years ago. The combination of the rapid advancement of 3D printing technologies, a growing U.S. base of 3D printing service providers, and crowdfunding platforms is leveling the playing field for all toy companies no matter how many SKUs they produce. Today, if you can dream it, you can build and sell it!