By now you’ve surely heard how additive manufacturing—the process of adding materials to create a desired shape and size, not removing materials via cutting or drilling—is providing everyone from the aviation industry to the medical field with more efficient, cost-effective and bespoke manufacturing options.
Equally exciting, however, are the ways in which small businesses are taking advantage of the 3D printing process. As the 3D printer market expands and its devices become more and more affordable, small businesses of all kinds are reaping the creative rewards.
The Mark One ($5,000, from Mark Forged) bills itself as the world’s first 3D printer designed for composite materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass. Want something a bit more delectable? At a similar price point, the ChefJet series of printers from 3D Systems will create full-color edibles for anyone looking to step up their confectionary game. For just $1,375, the MakerBot Replicator Mini will give you a desktop-size, plug-and-play option with “virtually no learning curve.” If 2013’s inaugural (and sold out) 3D Printer World Expo in Burbank, Calif. was any indication of the maker movement’s upward trajectory, the sky is indeed the limit for additive manufacturing. (Check out this article from ZDNet on what 3D printing needs to do to gain mainstream success in 2014.)
One company that’s utilized additive manufacturing to great success is UK-based MakieLab, whose posable, 10-inch Makies are fully customizable dolls designed by customers and then “printed” to order. Though the company was launched three years ago, 2013 was a banner year for the business. The dolls are currently on sale at Selfridges in London, and have earned a spot on the high-end department store’s Top 10 Toys list. What was one of the biggest and most important hurdles that MakieLab had to clear with consumers?
“That Makies are, in fact, an actual toy and not just a 3D-printed thingie,” says CEO Alice Taylor. “[Makies] are a safety-certified, high-quality toy product safe for kids 3+. We set out to achieve that, and we’re pretty proud of it. There was a lot of design thought, materials testing, and certification that went into that process.”
Makies are created using Autodesk 3ds Max, and are printed using either EOS P-series or 3D Systems sPro 60 printers. Additional outfits and clothing collections are also made in-house using machines like the MakerBot Replicator 2 or the 3D Systems Cube.
Because the toys are “born digital” through an online interface that allows for complete customization—everything from eye and skin color to nose length and jawline—the Makie experience doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. If you can’t afford a doll, you can still play a variety of games online with your digital avatar—a business model that’s proven quite successful.
Makies are also built to accommodate LEDs, voice chips, Bluetooth, and other “aftermarket” items that make the dolls attractive to the open-source hardware crowd. When makers come up with a creative new way to hotrod a Makie, the company responds in kind.
“One of our early customers Sugru’d LEGO to his Makie to make a ‘Mechkie,’” says Taylor. [Sugru is a moldable self-setting rubber that can be formed by hand.] “So we modeled an alternative backplate with LEGO connectors on it to help this kind of awesomeness along.”
Taylor believes that customization through the use of additive manufacturing (as well as open-source hardware) ultimately creates a stronger bond between the toy and its owner. She calls it an “heirloom bond,” and the proof is, as they say, in the pudding: To date, MakieLab hasn’t had a single Makie returned to them.
“Our software and systems can build much more than dolls,” adds Taylor. “Anything you can imagine in a 3D shape, within certain generally mild limitations of size and cost. Additive manufacturing plays a central role of course, but we also use laser cutting and textile printing.”
If utilizing additive manufacturing, developing an online revenue-generating component, and crossing over into the open-source hardware world weren’t enough, MakieLab goes for a manufacturing trend foursome by producing and assembling Makies locally rather than opting for cost-saving overseas options.
“The benefits of staying local are future-centric,” says Taylor. “Manufacturing nous stays within your business and your suppliers, shipping and warehousing costs are minimized, and local folks get employed! 3D printing is part of the picture, giving rise to the Distributed Manufacturing Network. If you want to make the future a more sustainable, shortest-hop-to-customer kind of place, we all have to be thinking a bit more like this.”