Alice Taylor, CEO of London-based toy manufacturer MakieLab, talks to James Pozzi about producing toys through the use of 3D printing and what it means for the UK industry.
UK toy manufacturers are quite scarce right now. What inspired you to set up Makielab, centred on toys manufactured around 3D printing?
In part, it was due to the lack of manufacturers. I was at a digital kid’s conference which is co-located with the New York Toy Fair in 2010, and I had the idea there. I was struck by how separate both entities still were, despite both exhibiting in the same building. I then did some research, which included reading the Real Toy Story book, telling the history of the British, German and American toy industries. It stated how they all started off as artisanal, and then went to local manufacture, and then to semi-industrialised, before 90% of the industry moved wholesale to the Far East. I was also interested in 3D printing as a concept, and how it does customisation instead of mass, local instead of remote and on-demand instead of warehouse.
There is a lot of talk right now about the reshoring movement and the demand for British products from abroad. Which markets are you seeing particular demand from overseas?
At the moment we haven’t done any marketing so all of the sales to date have happened from people seeing our products in Selfridges or through word of mouth. So it’s a bit organic and naturally its English-speaking countries, with 60-65% of our sales being in the UK. An additional 20% is from the US, with the rest accounted for by Europe and the rest of the world. In Europe its more the English-speaking countries, such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavian territories.
What is the typical design and manufacturing process for one of MakieLab’s 3D printed dolls?
The orders are usually individual and everything is on demand. It’s usually two weeks from creation and delivery. If they live far away – we just sold our first product to South Korea – then it might be a little bit over the two weeks shipping time. We’ll usually create through the website or our app, before making and then dispatching it.
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Have you incurred any of the cost challenges associated with making products in Britain, or has 3D printing reduced any of these costs?
Price is certainly a challenge, although with 3D printing, its not really any cheaper to print in China. Things such as the textils and the packaging are sourced in the UK, so we’re definitely paying a premium there. We do source the doll’s hair in China, as it is currently the only country in the world that makes it. That’s all fine, but there are certainly communication and shipping issues that we don’t have to deal with through our more local employers. If you look at reshoring generally then it is a challenge but it all depends on the product. I suspect what will happen is we’ll see a lot of reshoring for high margin luxury goods, but lower margin, less luxury stuff may take longer. Maybe it’ll start to reshore more as it becomes more automated. I’m pretty sure a Barbie doll is no longer touched by human hands, instead using machinery to paint the face and to sew the hair. There does come a point where it’ll just be a simply process and having a machine and pressing the go button.
How has the Autodesk software you use allowed you to compete with larger toy manufacturers operating under bigger budgets?
I think it allows us to compete at all. The fact a group of people without product design backgrounds or a factory in China can manage to create, certify and sell a toy and make the business grow shows what a great tool it is. We’ve got a completely unsual model – its on-demand and local, but things like the software and 3D printing have allowed us to pick these machines and have a go is the reason this can happen. Fifteen years ago? It couldn’t have happened, and that’s why you rarely heard of any UK toy start-ups, but now, also in part to the internet, this is a lot different. I expect to see a lot more companies starting up in the future using 3D printers, laser cutters and new software.