Material, Printer, Action (Figures)!
They say everyone is the hero of their own story. Now, for an introductory price of just $59.99, you can be a superhero—thanks to a creative partnership between toy giant Hasbro Inc. and 3D-printing innovator Formlabs of Somerville, Mass.
The Hasbro Selfie Series program, which was announced in July at the San Diego Comic Con, allows fans to create a collector-grade 6-inch [152.4 mm] action figure in their likeness based on characters from popular films, television series, and comics. Among the initial offerings are character costumes from G.I. JOE, Ghostbusters, Power Rangers, and Marvel, as well as designs inspired by Star Wars heroes.
“We have done extensive research to truly understand the fan’s ask for a personalized product, and the team has done a fantastic job at making that dream a reality,” said Brian Chapman, Hasbro president of design, development, and innovation. “The innovation on this proprietary technology is truly remarkable, and we cannot wait to give fans the opportunity to add themselves to their collections.”
The program ushers in a new era of customization in consumer entertainment, thanks to additive manufacturing (AM). But the toys aren’t just kid stuff; the process promises to revolutionize a range of consumer products.
“Formlabs printers are ideally suited for this endeavor as they offer the ability to print with a custom resin, enabling a range of hues for hair and skin colors without any hardware upgrades to Hasbro’s existing Form 3,” explained Gary Rowe, the company’s head of business development.
The digital fabrication platform, which includes high-performance printers, materials, and software, allows any company to develop a scalable manufacturing workflow that enables mass customization and mass production, according to Formlabs.
For the Selfie Series program, Hasbro operates more than 30 Form 3 SLA printers and runs specialized versions of Formlabs’ PreForm and Dashboard software to integrate the 3D-printing company’s programming interface into its own manufacturing processes.
Consumer orders kicked off this fall, with availability initially limited to the United States. After a customer has placed an order and uploaded all the necessary information, it takes about 45-60 days to print and deliver a customized figure.
Hasbro has been toying with 3D printers for more than a decade. But, like other consumer products companies, it determined there wasn’t a business case for mass-production customized products at the time.
“Ten years ago, 3D printing was not in a place where it could be reliably used in these high-value, high-customization type of jobs,” David Lakatos, Formlabs’ chief product officer, acknowledged in a joint video about the Selfie Series. But this has changed. ”We now have the reliability, the precision that we can participate in manufacturing.”
Launched in 2011 by a trio of MIT graduate students, Formlabs has continually improved its AM technology—and made it more affordable—to help it expand from industrial to consumer applications. In recent years, for example, the company has teamed with industry partners to make 3D-printed earbuds, customized men’s razor handles, jewelry molds, ventilator parts, and false teeth.
Hasbro started working with Formlabs in 2014, using the company’s 3D printers to rapidly prototype action figures. But the toy company had more ambitious plans, fueled by customer demand for customized products.
“We applied that prototyping knowledge to ensure we could deliver the quality our fans wanted,” explained Patrick Marr, Sr., Hasbro’s director of model development. He said the company has created custom “one-off” figures to support product development and specific corporate initiatives for years.
AM Meets Advanced Facial Scans
The project is centered around two technologies coming together, Marr noted. “The first piece was identifying the right additive manufacturing (AM) technology to deliver finished parts that met our aesthetic and quality standards.”
After evaluating a host of AM competitors, Hasbro chose Formlabs based on the quality of its stereolithography (SLA) printers and versatile resins. SLA resin-based printing enables smoother, thinner, and less noticeable layer lines (as low as 50 micron thickness) that look like an injection-molded piece, according to the partners.
Advances in smartphone technology were the other key enabler. They include the addition of depth sensors, which makes 3D scanning more viable, and photogrammetry technology that creates a 3D model from still images.
Face scanning is done through the Hasbro Pulse mobile app, which enables the company to remotely capture a user’s likeness quickly and easily. The system works on both iPhone and Android devices, Marr said, and is compatible with multiple versions of the phones.
“When we first saw the scanning technology come in, we knew there was an avenue there. … All of a sudden you could see there was a bridge between the prototyping stage and the production stage,” Marr added.
“The team did a tremendous job developing a process that captures our fans’ likeness and projects onto our proprietary head buck,” he continued. “From there, the customer can adjust their detected skin tone, choose their favorite figure, decide on a hairstyle and color, and add any facial hair to capture their true self. The app seamlessly leads the consumer through the entire process showing each step in amazing 3D renders.”
The team focused on developing all the infrastructure, tools, and processes required to produce at scale. “Every aspect of the production process and fixtures had to be designed, developed, and tested before we could implement them into our production process,” Marr noted.
Making a Superhero
The goal was to produce a custom figure that matched the quality, or was better, than Hasbro’s existing off-the-shelf, mass-production action figures. This meant they had to be lifelike and extremely durable.
Getting the job done required constant testing, experimentation, innovation, and collaboration. The Selfie Series was “definitely one of those projects that brought together many great minds across multiple departments to solve,” Marr said.
“We understood very well how to produce at a small scale,” he added. “I would say most of the time was centered around creating a system that worked at scale. Every aspect of the file handling, automation, part tracking, sorting, and assembly had to be figured out.”
For example, the material had to be skin safe and durable, meeting Hasbro’s high standards. To this end, the partners adapted Formlabs Tough 1500 resin to create a new proprietary material that enables 3D-printed parts that match the stiffness and strength of polypropylene parts.
“Selfie Series required a material with the right quality surface finish, high resolution detail, the right skin color match, and mechanical properties,” Rowe said, “yet would still have a high toughness without being too brittle—these action figures are designed to be played with.”
Hasbro produces the 3D-printed heads at micro-manufacturing facilities around the country, allowing it to be close to customers and scale up production based on demand. The build process is optimized to print 25 different heads at a time.
After they’re printed, the customized heads are painted—including eyebrows, eyes, lips, and teeth—polished, and complete final post-processing. They are then teamed with the appropriate off-the-shelf, injection-molded body.
The hair pieces are pre-manufactured—users can choose from more than 50 styles. Glasses and other accessories currently aren’t available as part of Hasbro’s process but buyers can have them printed separately elsewhere on their own.
The Hasbro program has helped Formlabs in areas beyond just making toys, according to Rowe.
“Hasbro Selfie Series is one of, if not the first example of, mass customization with 3D printing. Formlabs is enabling companies to create unique and customized products in tech, healthcare and dental, and other sectors.”
The action figures are the beginning of “a wave of mass customization that will become mainstream in the coming years as companies recognize its value,” Rowe envisioned. “Personalized products can engage consumers and can even provide benefits such as improved patient outcomes when used in healthcare and dental applications, and Formlabs’ affordable and versatile 3D-printing solutions are enabling this wave.”
In coming years, such customization could extend to a range of other products, such as shoes, eyewear, and golf clubs. This would enable buyers to specify various parameters—fit, shape, weight, material, texture—to meet their needs and usher in a new era of practical applications for 3D printing.