The ModiBots, a line of poseable action figures which can be outfitted with all sorts of accessories, sell for around US$15 apiece, which isn't much more than what you'd expect to pay for any other toy at retail. The difference is that these aren't being churned out in massive quantities by a major manufacturer – they're available for purchase online via Shapeways' 3D print-on-demand service. It's an example of how entrepreneurs are taking advantage of 3D printing technology to build new businesses.
ModiBots is the brainchild of toy designer Wayne Losey, who tried to launch a similar line of toys called Stikfas during a 13-year tenure at some of the biggest toy companies in the world. Stikfas, which share much in common with ModiBots, were meant to be more like Legos or other creative mix-and-build toys, but failed to stand out on the shelves next to products based on recognizable movies and TV licenses.
Then along came the advent of 3D printing, and in particular Shapeways, which allows designers to sell their designs online. What became a loss for the major players has now become a growing business for Losey as an individual. It's manageable because he doesn't have to deal with inventory at all – the toys are printed and shipped by Shapeways. He simply uploads his latest creation and it's instantly available for purchase.
The ModiBots come in a variety of form factors, from skeleton-like people to dinosaurs, which can be easily snapped together. The parts have holes which can be plugged with more than 700 parts and accessories, allowing kids of all ages to customize to their heart's content. The downside is that customers have to wait for their order to be printed and shipped to their door – a process which usually takes around 10 days. Losey is no exception to this rule, as he too must wait to see the effects of any design tweaks.
Another issue is the rougher quality of the prints, which can't match the strength and surface quality of injection-molded plastic parts consumers are familiar with. That sort of goes with the territory, as most 3D printers build objects in layers, resulting in small ridges that stair-step along the object's surface and can cause them to be more fragile. However, injection molding is prohibitively expensive to set in motion for individuals, so it is often limited to major manufacturers or more expensive designer toys.
The fact remains that it is virtually impossible to compete with well known brands or those associated with children's programming that crowd retail shelves. However, ModiBots may yet carve a niche for itself among people who want toys that encourage more creativity and imagination. Losey feels cautiously optimistic about his new business, having seen significant growth over the past few months.
One of the figures is assembled in the video below.