I never knew that being a dentist’s daughter, and working in a scene shop as a theatre undergrad would prepare me for going to a factory in China. While I have spent the last 9 years talking about the miniature making process to my colleagues, as well as manufacturers, it’s an entirely different experience being there in person. The initial step from our end is making and sending the files for a 3D model. I have always found some confusion over this when talking to manufacturers. The conversation would get muddled over the fact that they had an “artists” who would make the mini, and when we asked why they would do that rather than use the 3D artists design, they would reply. “Yes we will.” I got a lot of stares at my glee witnessing the process in person, with so many eureka moments.
So here’s what happens; the model is 3D printed, and assessed for weak points, characters’ poses, and how it will eventually fit in a mold for ease of a assembly by highly skilled sculptors.They take the 3D design and break it down into the segmented parts for the final mold. Then they create a revision of the miniatures in a material that reminded me of the quick dry cement my father (the dentist) used to make the mock ups of people’s teeth, before creating their dentures or crowns. The sculptors create them with the maximum amount of detail, sometimes over exaggerating to compensate for the attrition that will happen for each iteration, and some adjustments if they see potential problems.
Next the sculpt is placed in a box. They pour a quick dry plastic over it, which again, reminded me of the dentist office… but in reverse. (If anyone has had to bite down into that plastic material to make the negative FOR the quick dry cement, they will understand this moment. If not, keep up with the brushing and flossing!) The plastic material is put in a machine to shake the bubble out. It’s just like the one at any home improvement store for the paint cans.
That negative is used to make another mini, which needs to be fired in basically a giant kiln. The material can withstand the metal that is poured around it to form the final negative for each mini of the mold. Below you can see the giant oven and the crucible for the metal.
Once the mold negative for each component cools off, they are opened, and workers use drills to clean up any drips, add back in detail if possible and make minute adjustments. This is how any adjustments to the mold will be made going forward. Knowing this makes so much more sense when looking at the reluctance to make changes to a mold after getting a proof. We have learned to work carefully with our 3D artists over the years to prevent potential disasters before getting to manufacturing because we were told it could take weeks or even months to make changes. This really drove home why it takes that much time.
Then, all the smaller boxes of miniature sections are assembled into the bigger box that is specked out to fit the machine that will pump plastics into the mold. Once completed, it will be sent to the miniatures factory that is assembling them.
Take a moment to imagine the sensory experience of this building. The hammering sound of the machine shaking out bubbles, the screech of a drill on metal, the smell of burning ash and plastics. I noticed many of the workers wore masks here, but sadly no earplugs. For all that, it was not terribly warm, but the kiln was not on that day either. I also noticed for all the particles that must create a lot of dust the factory was incredibly clean. It was impressive to say the least.
There were plenty of other adventures while I was in China, and I will revisit this topic again to share them, but next week I am moving onto another topic. Until then!