Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 5 (May 2001)

Toys 4 U




A CAD designer uses rapid-prototyping technologies to build customized toys

By Karen Moltenbrey

Toys R Us may have the market covered for mass-produced toys. But say you're looking for something different-a doll that looks like your daughter, for instance, or a miniature version of the first car you ever bought. Now your dream toy is only a mouse click away at ToyBuilders.com. "We custom-build toys of all kinds, from a child's toy to a missing part for an antique vehicle from a hobby set," says Karl Denton, the online store's founder. "We're offering consumers the ability to have whatever they want, which is possible through the use of 3D graphics, CAD software, and rapid-prototyping (RP) technologies.

"There's been a lot of discussion within the industry about where to go next," adds Denton. (See "A Re-industrial Revolution on pg. 18.) "But there's an untapped market out there of consumers as well as people in the manufacturing industry who don't know that rapid-prototyping technologies exist."

Denton started ToyBuilders.com last year after trying to satisfy his young daughter's request for a scepter and crown just like she had seen on television.
Using 3D modeling software and rapid prototyping, ToyBuilders.com is bringing customization to the masses by creating one-of-a-kind toys and objects through its online company. (Images courtesy ToyBuilders.com.)




Denton, an engineer specializing in rapid prototyping, replicated the child's sketch using SolidWorks' CAD software, then output the model using a stereolithography (SLA) machine. The toy was a hit.

Realizing the time had come to introduce the general public to the rapid-prototyping industry, Denton secured the do main name for the company's Internet site and began setting up his virtual toy shop. Since the virtual company began offering its services, Denton estimates that the Web site has been receiving approximately a million "hits" a month.

Potential customers submit their ideas through the Web site (www.toybuilders.com) and within several days receive a quote. Once the customer gives Denton the go-ahead, the toy is created. The price for a custom toy varies from $25 to $25,000, depending on the materials and the amount of design work involved. According to Denton, he receives approximately 500 requests for quotes per week, a quarter of which he is hired to produce. "There's a wide range of people submitting requests-from business owners who are unfamiliar with the technology to comic book writers who want their creations to sit on their desks."

The enabling factors that have made ToyBuilders.com a success are the availability of inexpensive solid-modeling applications and the existence of RP service bureaus. Originally, the toy maker used SolidWorks software for every object but found that creating human-like figures-dolls, for example-was too constraining with an engineering tool.

Now Denton has added Curious Labs' Poser 4, Hash Inc.'s Animation:Master, and Electric Image's Amorphium to his toolkit, though his equipment can also read Discreet 3D Studio Max files. "It used to take me about four days to create a human figure model with SolidWorks. Now I can do it in a half-hour with Poser," he says.

After Denton creates a toy model, he uses SolidWorks' eDrawings function, which enables customers to thoroughly review the item and make any last-minute changes before the model is built on an RP machine. If the customer requests several copies of an item, then a mold rather than a part is output.

Different types of toys require different types of output from the prototyping machines. For instance, an action figure could be made from a hard plastic or something that feels like actual flesh. "We've had someone pay $2400 for a 12-inch doll that was very detailed and had a fleshy feel," Denton recalls. If the object is for a young child, however, the customer has little choice in material. "We have to use specific [nontoxic] materials so we don't violate the Consumer Product Safety Commission's rules regarding toy manufacturing."

ToyBuilders.com owns some rapid-prototype machines, but has established a program in which service bureaus are signed to annual contracts to provide specific materials, paints, and processes. This enables the toy company to offer a wide range of services, including SLA, which uses an epoxy resin; Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), which uses a variety of powdered materials, ranging from wax to metal; Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which uses nylon, wax, and other materials; Layer Object Manufacturing (LOM), which uses layers of paper; and Three Dimensional Printing (3DP), which uses heated wax to build up a surface. For kid-tough toys, FDM would be a good environment because the build materials are typically rugged, while 3DP would be ideal for small, detailed objects like doll heads and jewelry because of the moldability of the waxy substance, Denton notes.
Creating customized toys as is easy as one, two, three. First the designer gets a conceptual sketch from the client (top), then re-creates the object in a 3D modeling package (middle), and outputs it from a rapid-prototyping machine (bottom).




"The only limiting factor is your imagination," Denton says. For a doll that looks like a specific person, Denton requires two photographs of the human model, taken from the front and side, which he then converts to a solid model by using the modeling software. Among the most requested items, says Denton, are Pez candy dispensers, action figures, and dolls that resemble a particular person.

Then there are requests for more unusual objects, such as drug molecules and DNA structures. One of the more peculiar requests was for a 6-foot figure of a bronze fairy for a vineyard. So far, that's been the largest object requested of ToyBuilders.com, with the smallest being half-inch game pieces. So far the only items the company will not build are realistic toy weapons for kids, which have been requested. However, the toy maker did send a quote to an Army major recently who wanted realistic hand grenades for training purposes.
Creating customized objects is not just child's play, as ToyBuilders.com has filled requests for many specialized items, from golf clubs to chess pieces to hobby set pieces.




The price and delivery time of a customized toy depends on the amount of design work involved. For instance, Denton was able to replicate characters from a computer game for a developer almost instantaneously because the client provided the original design files in 3D Studio Max. Typically, a custom-built toy takes about eight weeks to complete, depending on how demanding the design is.

"The sheer number of requests we get is an indication to me that the public is ready for customized product manufacturing, which is really what I'm doing," Denton says.

SolidWorks 2000, SolidWorks (www.solidworks.com)
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