“We reckon that these are the first dolls to be made in London since Victorian times,” says Alice Taylor, co-founder of Makie Labs, as she strokes the voluminous red hair of the latest Makie doll to be assembled in its cramped Shoreditch workshop.
“We can’t actually prove that, of course,” she adds, laughing, “but we’ll keep saying it until someone challenges us.”
The Makie she’s cradling is the offspring of a fortuitous marriage between 3D printing technology and online gaming, and it’s tearing up the rule book of toy manufacturing. These dolls are designed online by children, for children, using the same kind of interface that they would use to create an avatar in an online game. Crucially, that avatar goes on to lead a double life, participating in online games, but is also printed out as 3D parts, assembled, dressed, made up and shipped to your door. Sixty per cent of these dolls are currently being sent across the Atlantic to excitable American children, but visitors to UK toy outlets such as Hamleys are now, in the run-up to Christmas, waking up to the burgeoning Makie phenomenon.
“The idea stemmed from imagining if the characters from World of Warcraft, Second Life and so on could be made real,” says Taylor. “I used to work at Channel 4, commissioning digital content for kids, and I found myself at this event in New York which had a digital conference upstairs and a toy fair downstairs. There was no evidence of any crossover between the two and I started wondering if you could make an avatar into a doll using 3D printing.”
Taylor’s 2011 prototype, drawn on paper, constructed using 3D modelling software and printed in Belgium for €220 (£176), proved that it was possible, but transforming that idea into a functioning business would require the nascent technology to become cheaper, faster and better. “For the first 18 months,” says Taylor, “everyone was saying, ‘No, you can’t do that. If you’re going to make dolls you’ve got to involve Chinese factories.’”
Taylor’s colleague, Jo Roach, recalls asking 3D printing companies if they’d consider printing dolls. “They’d been making bits of aeroplanes or whatever,” she says, “and we walked in with a consumer product and they laughed us out of the room.”
Fast forward a year or so, however, and big toy manufacturers began calling Makie Labs to find out what exactly they were up to. “I think it scared them a bit,” says Roach. “We were making dolls without using any of the established routes; working totally under the radar.”
Independent toy manufacturers are few and far between. While start-ups might pitch ideas to industry giants such as Hasbro, any dreams they might have of making their own toys are inevitably shattered at the point where they look into the logistics. “Toy manufacturing is an enormous machine and it all happens in the Far East,” says Taylor. “Making the moulds is hugely expensive, the best factories are tied up by the biggest companies and the lead times are incredibly long. People tend not to have a spare £150,000 and a working relationship with Toys R Us. So they just sell the idea.” 3D printing, however, made it possible for Makie to produce the items quickly. Their first dolls, printed under a dentist’s surgery in the West End of London, went on sale in mid-2012 at £99 each. They sold a hundred in a fortnight.
The Makie Labs online tool allows children to choose gender, skin colour and clothing for the doll and offers such granular control over its facial features that each doll is almost guaranteed to be unique, while still retaining the distinctive Makie look. When you pick one up, you definitely sense something unusual about them and that’s partly down to the nylon material used in their manufacture, making them slightly weightier than traditional dolls.
“When we tested them with kids,” says Roach, “they were being really careful with them. We had to show them that they could be chucked around and it would be OK.”
The layered texture of the 3D print also gives them a sophisticated matt finish that would turn a shiny Barbie doll green with envy. “Again, that’s accidental,” says Roach, “but we’ve been learning all this stuff as we go along.”
Makie Labs found itself racking up a whole collection of firsts, from dyeing bone-white 3D-printed nylon using vats of tea to achieve the right skintone, to putting the same material through arduous toy-safety certification procedures. “We had no idea what was involved,” says Roach. “And there was no one to ask!”
Taylor proudly admits that she wasn’t allowed to have fashion dolls as a child and was given Lego and computers instead. “My aunt gave me a ballet Barbie once,” she recalls, “and it resulted in some kind of family feud.”
Both women are keen that the dolls are seen as a symbol of creativity, self-expression and innovation, and hope that they encourage an interest in STEM subjects and coding. “It’s an opportunity to make a doll that isn’t just about tiny waists and legs that go up to here,” says Taylor. The website makes no bones about this; one background image features Pi to something like 20 decimal places, and there are “I LOVE MATH” T-shirts available for the dolls.
“We expected those shirts not to be popular,” she says. “But the opposite happened. It’s interesting that our princess dresses are the least best-selling. We want kids to choose what they want; to put it together themselves.”
Makie began selling boy dolls, too, after Taylor discovered that Hamleys sold only three kinds of male doll: armed forces, WWF wrestlers or Justin Bieber. “Boys get pigeonholed, too,” she says. “Why would they want a doll with a weird moustache and a machine gun?
“What I love about 3D printing,” says Taylor, “is that it totally democratises this sector. Yeah, it’s taken longer than we thought for the process to get cheaper, but it changes everything. Instead of having to pitch an idea, to ask for permission to do something, you can just make it and see if people like it. It opens the world of toys up to everybody.”Reuse content