Q&A: Read It At Home Since You Won't Be In The Office Today Edition

By Adam Pawlus — Sunday, May 26, 2013

It's time for Q&A! It's also Memorial Day in the USA, which means a lot of you are probably not at work, meaning you aren't reading this today. Because it's in the news, a lot of you wrote in about 3-D printing and how that whole thing might affect the hobby in the near and long term. Also new vehicles I may have touched. And Mattel has a $1 Enterprise in the marketplace. Send in questions for the next column, because hey, what else are you doing?



1. What do think about 3D printing? What does the future hold for fans as far as licensing and patents are concerned? Is now the time for everyone to have a domestic toy factory?

The technology for home manufacturing is still not exactly fantastic. The cost to print out a cool model is quite high, and the economy of scale is still needed to keep costs down. The Maker Bots and other 3-D Printers are great for rapid prototyping right now, but you still may need to employ traditional manufacturing methods to produce a decent number of cheap manufactured goods.

What's fun to watch in the news is people freak out over this, particularly with guns, mostly because anything you make with this is unlikely to withstand too much abuse and heat for too long. Sure, you can make something, but the value of it for tools is far lower than for knickknacks or collectibles. Actual product piracy could be possible, and you can see some political people already talk about legislating what you can and cannot make with this machine. I find this disturbing, because while I understand that people want to smother a potential Napster situation in its crib it's nearly impossible to make a device that can't make items or has to obey copyrights.

If you wanted to, today, you could set up a small toy factory in your home. People are doing this. It's time-consuming and takes skill, but there's nothing stopping you from getting plastic, molds, and other gear to cast an existing product and make copies out of all sorts of materials. Super-collector and all around nice guy The Godbeast may be one of the most famous individuals in our hobby doing this, as he's replicated rare figures in new and interesting ways as well as brought new products to market. The main difference with the 3-D printers is that it is lowers the barrier to entry in terms of skill and replaces it with a higher cost.

Right now people are making products through print-to-order houses like Shapeways at higher costs that look very similar to other people's copyrighted/trademarked/otherwise owned goods. The amount of money that will likely pour into the debate against in-home manufacturing will likely be huge, and ultimately ineffective on all fronts. I don't want to buy a $2,400 device and plastic at $25 per pound to make action figures - for the time being it's going to be the most efficient to do what we currently do, and that's to exploit overseas labor. But in 10 years? I bet it'll still be cheaper to exploit. Tooling in China is expensive, but for a modest run (hundreds to thousands) it still may be cheaper than doing it at home yourself for quite some time. Big business likely will not ultimately care about 3-5 of something being made, but as soon as you can make a better Optimus Prime than Hasbro for a lower cost I expect things to get dicey.


2. Are you interested in custom Star Wars items made by fans or other collectors? Have you ever bought anything like this? I have noticed that there are some cool custom Star Wars-esque items available for sale on these 3-D printing websites [like Shapeways], however I have yet to pull the trigger on buying any of these.

So far I haven't bought anything from these sites, but I have bought a few items from other collectors and have purchased some stuff made by fans/makers like The Godbeast. The output of an unpainted Cantina Drink Dispenser is a neat idea, but it's sort of rough, completely unpainted, and $85.00. Even if it was perfectly painted, $85.00 is too rich for my blood - I collect toys, and at $85 it needs to be a pretty big toy. $9 Cantina Chairs and $3.65 space hangar lights just don't seem like things I need to buy myself, but if they could be delivered more cheaply and/or fully painted I'd be quite interested in seeing more.



3. Last year at Toy Fair we saw two new Jedi Star Fighters from Revenge of the Sith. The old one is a great toy, but it's way to big. Those ships in the movie were small. These new ones are much smaller, and much more in scale. Did you see these in person? Will these still be coming out in the fall?

These are expected this summer, and they are indeed smaller. I recently had a chance to play with the Anakin's model, and the wings are no longer spring-loaded. Green projectile launchers are mounted under the ship, and it no longer has (or needs) retractable landing gear. It's quite good, and I'm pretty happy Hasbro is also releasing figures designed to sit inside vehicles along with them. This should make them a lot of fun.


4. I just saw your bit about knockoff items in [a previous] Q&A and... Just wait until 3D printing ramps up. When it does, expect the occasional weird new story about the guy that has a Death Star the size of Monticello that he (yeah, it'll be a guy) printed out. And I'll be glad to give you a tour ;-) Which I guess leads into a kind of question... Have any of the major toy companies started looking at how to make money off 3D printing? It would be the best way to get all the rarities we've always wanted... Like Jaxxon.

Right now the 3-D printing works well for one-offs of expensive items, but not something like toys. I've seen many companies make built-to-order statues on demand, printing from a photo or a CAD file. Bobble heads and statues are done regularly, but not action figures. It's unlikely Hasbro would want to chase this because it's simply not a good use of their time yet - the effort of producing a system in which a licensed action figure can be made at home is novel, but the amount of people who would likely use it is tiny relative to their normal production methods. Is it worth developing a technology to make a few thousands dollars rather than hundreds of thousands to millions? Would an enterprising fan hack the security to figure out how to print them all for free and sell them on eBay or Craigslist? The benefit to Hasbro or a Lucasfilm licensee would be minimal.

There's a lot of opportunity in home 3-D printing, but right now you're dealing with making something in a little box that's like a decent-sized toaster oven. Sure, you could crank out some arms and legs, but it wouldn't feel quite right, or fit together like a real toy, not at least for a few years. If all you want is an unlicensed 3 3/4-inch statue of a green rabbit space man, I agree that's going to happen sooner than later.

When it comes to playsets, you could do that right now. Someone could make patterns you could print out and trace, cutting out wood and building a giant playset. But nobody is really doing this. You could use a laser printer to make all-new pop-up playsets and dioramas… but nobody is doing this, either. The lower barrier of cheap China manufacturing also didn't seem to inspire a lot of people to make "compatible" Star Wars toys over the last 18 years outside some hugely questionable and unnecessary instruments for Sy Snootles and Joh Yowza plus a little-seen Warlordarian figure.

Look at it this way: did 2-D printers in the home revolutionize magazines or low-run print media? Not really. (I mean, yes, I ran a small crappy zine in junior high school before starting being a pretend Internet toy journalist read by tens of people.) 'zine culture died off with the rise of the internet, and things like cheap laser printers didn't result in smaller-run indie publications on a decent scale. A few people will likely embrace and exploit the technology in a meaningful way, but it's just as likely that this new 3-D printing will serve as a tool for the current big business process rather than really, truly democratize manufacturing for the masses. The truly talented will always find a way to get things made.


5. Do you see any chance that Hasbro releases the Separatist Droid Carrier as LEGO did four times since 1999? I think it would be a great seller in the Class II Vehicle assortment!

Exceedingly unlikely. Hasbro is currently doubling down on "core" vehicles and seems to be making a graceful transition to a mix of classic trilogy and whatever comes next. If a vehicle doesn't belong to a main character, or will appear in the next TV show, I wouldn't be too hopeful.

While I have no evidence in my hands yet, it is my assumption that Disney will treat the prequels and The Clone Wars like a kid from a previous marriage that they got by marrying The Original Trilogy.



Tangent: Mattel made a Hot Wheels Star Trek Into Darkness Enterprise in its $1 car assortments. I found one over the weekend. Good hunting.

Last week's announcement of Star Wars Rebels was foreshadowed in a few news posts of recent Lucasfilm domain name buys (complete with a few red herrings and possibly a few more we'll hear about later.) While the early Empire era is one of the more interesting ones (it's when Droids took place!), there is one minor snag: it's yet another prequel, which is something I believe the fandom may be done with. By and large it seems fans wanted to know what's next, rather than more backstory to a movie we're already fairly clear on.

One twist I'm curious to see is regarding the chronology of the show. Given the series name and some images of X-Wings and TIE Fighters in the promo video, it's a safe bet it will cover the Rebellion. However, as of 2008 Lucasfilm told us via The Force Unleashed that the Rebellion was born out of the main character's adventures and those were roughly 2 years before the original movie. Will Lucasfilm stick to this window, or rewrite the timeline like they did for The Clone Wars? And more importantly, does it matter?

We're at a point where the Expanded Universe glut is so big that it seems there's little reason to stick to it. That, and it's hard to say what purpose this new show will serve. It seemed The Clone Wars was developed as a platform for licensed products, at which I don't know if I'd say it was successful. I'm assuming the purpose of Rebels is to flush out the system, so to speak. This is Disney's Star Wars colonic- years of prequels and Expanded Universe and generally things not of the original trilogy are likely going to be (if not swept under the rug) archived so the three movies that the culture's memory embraced are at the forefront just in time for the new movie to crack $1 billion at the worldwide box office. Did you see Iron Man 3's numbers? Disney has a reason to hype up kids and parents.

Despite the supposed company line of "kids love the prequels!" since 1999, I'm guessing this is less true than we were told. The line-up moved away from this era quite a bit with most licensees (not Hasbro) and as far as I can tell, the kids of 1999 did not grow up to be the fans of 2013. If you were 10 when The Phantom Menace came out, you're about 24 now and as far as I can tell, you're not blogging about this and you probably aren't collecting either. It wouldn't surprise me if aging Gen X-ers (or whatever) are holding to the Trilogy much as baby boomers won't shut up about their rock and roll 50 years later and will hold pop culture for movies hostage much like the Rolling Stones have done for music for so long. The cultural impact crater of those first three movies won't be ignored so I'm guessing they're going to have a strong influence over what Disney gives us for a while, for better or for worse.

I'm assuming Disney is using the new show as an olive branch to grab lapsed fans, prequel haters, new parents, and toy fans that got sick of Gungans and Jedi Starfighters. It's a big opportunity to sell more "classic" stuff but the very nature of the show puts it in a position to go into a rut pretty quickly. Having said that, at least it isn't a comedy show. (Not that I don't like the funny, I'm just pleased the next effort out of Lucasfilm won't be to lampoon its cash cow.)

--Adam Pawlus

Got questions? Email me with Q&A in the subject line now! I'll answer your questions as soon as time (or facts) permit.