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London was not only basking in the glory of Andy Murray’s famous victory at SW19 but basking in sunshine as the hottest July in recent memory makes the tube almost unbearable and the ten minute walk from Old Street to Scrutton Street quite sweat inducing. That’s the problem with this country “we complain when it is too warm and when it is too cold” says the US born, MakieLab’s Communications Director, Jen Bolton as I enter the 3D printing elves’ workshop.
MakieLab has grown exponentially in its short lifespan and their flagship products the Makie Dolls have become the poster boys/girls for 3D printing in little over a year. Whenever you spot a mainstream press article about 3D printing a finished product Makies aren’t too far away.
Two months ago in New York City it was the spotlight rather than limelight that was firmly positioned on the startup, “We were the only British technology company invited over to New York as part of the GREAT Britain showcase of innovation, which was an honour but we had to get the Prince Harry and David Cameron dolls out a lot faster than usual.”
Although usually all Makie Dolls are individual and only ever made once (signified by a number inside the head), a two-week turnaround with Prince Harry and David Cameron meant they were printed twice, at different partners just in case they didn't arrive on time. I got a sneak peak of the two dolls that aren’t sitting on mantelpieces at 10 Downing Street and Windsor Castle; the PM didn’t have his eyes in and Harry didn’t have his clothes on, which some might say would have been a more realistic depiction of His Royal Highness.
Those pictures of the Prince and the PM clutching the dolls were pretty much everywhere, from the Daily Mail to long-running satirical panel show ‘Have I Got News For You’, “the response was crazy, Charlie Brooker’s people called us and wanted a doll version of him for a show they had on the next night but it just wasn’t possible and Have I Got News For You beat them to it”
Managing expectations is a problem for most 3D printing companies, the ideals spun out by the press that this manufacturing process is pretty much magic is one of constant annoyance. “We often get news companies calling us to ask to film the printing process, but it’s not really that interesting looking at a light shining at some powder”.
Though we all know the manufacturing process isn’t magic, MakieLab's intuitive digital to physical experience seems just that to anybody who uses their service. Simply design your doll on an iPad or in browser on a friendly and fun app, order it and a physical facsimile replica of your doll arrives on your doorstep without you having to have any knowledge of 3D modelling or the manufacturing process. You get to do all the exciting stuff while MakieLab do all of the donkeywork.
That donkeywork takes place in their Shoreditch offices, the dolls are printed using SLS by partners such as Digits2Widgets in Nylon and sent to MakieLab where they add the finishing touches; clothing, hair, eyes etc. The dolls are then packed into bespoke cardboard tubes complete with a birth certificate and shipped off around the world to be enjoyed by children and adults alike. The MakieLab elves are constantly working away; some on the app, some designing new prototypes (which they print with a MakerBot), some ironing tiny clothes to make the absolute best product possible.
One main attribute that often gets lost often in the talk of bleeding edge technology is that these are toys, the first 3D printed product that can officially call themselves a toy after receiving the CE mark earlier in the year. “We hope that children get as much enjoyment out of the dolls as possible, people are often surpised when they see a Makie doll how poseable they are” Jen told me as she showed me the workshop were the finishing touches are added.
I must admit myself the dolls have a completely different feel and finish than I had previously thought. There’s a real weight and quality to them, they feel a million times more durable and more playable than a Barbie doll does, on that note I asked Jen what she thought of the 3D Printed Barbie with real life proportions that appeared in the press recently“I have spoken to a lot of journalists on this who say their children know that Barbie is a doll and don’t attribute any body image issues to it but I don’t know, surely it does promote an unhealthy image? Makies try to promote a healthy image”
Despite Makies obviously being miles better than Barbie dolls Jen is quick to point out they’re a small fish in this pond “Dolls are difficult there’s no competing with marketing budget of of Mattel, they’ve been around a long time. We’re mainly gamers in here, so when Alice (Alice Taylor CEO) said we were to be making a doll we thought ‘how can we possibly do this?’” Though the obvious competition is a stumbling block, MakieLab is going from strength to strength, gobbling up coverage wherever they can. Though not all of the attention is extremely helpful especially when people don't get the process. “When the app first came out it was hard to categorise because there’s nothing else like this on the market so it is under games, but it isn’t really a game as such so we had some bad reviews asking what the point of the game was. But when people get what it is they love it and are amazed.”
The digital to physical is a key part of Makies philosophy, the software developers are as important to the startup as anything else, they’re currently working on a couple of interesting updates to the Makies world, one of which could significantly change how people interact with their Makies and perhaps get a couple of those App Store curmudgeons off their backs.
There’s plenty of scope for where MakieLab could go next, it is not too unforeseeable that the dolls could get a high street presence in which children go through part of the process of manufacturing the dolls just like the massively popular Build-a-Bear. When I pressed Jen on this issue she remarked “We’ll have an announcement shortly but we’re working on something very exciting with a leading retail outlet in time for Christmas, but you'll just have to wait and see.”
All very intriguing and reflects a company going through a massive growth period thanks to the hype surrounding 3D printing and more importantly a workforce who love to make games and toys. With dolls in high places there appears to be no stopping this genuinely innovative 3D printing service.
You can see MakieLab CEO, Alice Taylor in a Keynote speech at this years TCT Show + Personalize. Register here...