The most frustrating part of waiting for a Kickstarter to be fulfilled is, well, the waiting. And for the types of games we typically put on Kickstarter – games with lots of plastic miniatures – the tooling process is the longest and most difficult to estimate part of that timeline.
Tooling Majorly Impacts Fulfillment Timelines
On average, projects requiring tooling have taken 10 months longer between the live Kickstarter and fulfillment, than projects without tooling. We’ve fulfilled 9 Kickstarters that required tooling. Those took an average of 22 months between live Kickstarter and the month when fulfillment was complete. That’s from a range of 12 months (Evil High Priest, which needed fewer than 10 small new sculpts) all the way to 33 months for The Gods War Kickstarter, which suffered from major tooling issues (and unrelated but major factory lawsuit issues). By contrast, the average of the 7 Kickstarters we’ve fulfilled that did not require tooling was only 12.7 months. And if you remove a massive outlier from that batch (our Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for Pathfinder which took 27 months due to non-repeatable problems), the non-tooling Kickstarters’ average drops to 10.33 months! That’s from a range of a mere 6 months between KS and fulfillment (8-Bit Attack, which admittedly benefited from the fact that we pre-printed the games before KS launch), and 15 months for Theomachy and Cthulhu Wars: VF (or 27 months if you count the outlier of the Pathfinder project).
Here’s the Short and Sweet version of these numbers:
In other words, tooling is a MAJOR reason for increasing the time needed to fulfill a project. And this extra time cannot merely be attributable to the fact that these projects also require mass produced (and assembled) plastics. After all, several projects in the “non-tooling” numbers above were games that had plastic pieces. Just not ones that needed tooling, since that was done for other projects. For example, the Cthulhu Wars: VF and the Harbinger Cthulhu Kickstarters both had plastic miniatures, but no tooling, and so were counted in the non-tooling averages!
An Overview of the entire Tooling Process (Or: Why does Tooling take so long?)
Tooling is the process by which the factory takes a 3D file that looks like this:
And turns it into a steel mold that fits the machines which create the plastic PVC miniature that looks like this:
The tooling for a project like this is a massive undertaking – it has many steps, but for a simple and small miniature (i.e., ones that you would basically never see in a Petersen Games game…), tooling can be relatively quick – even as short as 45 days. We have uniquely large and uniquely complex models, so the tooling process for us always takes a huge number of months, and the exact number of months is hard to predict at the outset.
This is OEM production. So, think of it like this – every miniature that is tooled is a new thing that has never been tooled before. And thus, knowing how long it will take is always a little unclear. The larger and more complex (and ours are routinely both), the longer it takes on average. We are often impressed by the overall quality of some other miniature heavy publishers (CMON, Awaken Realms, etc.), and we always strive to even match their surface texture and overall quality. But it is actually rare for other publishers and games to match the size and technical complexity of our miniatures (i.e., the number of parts in a miniature and the unique challenges of tooling each one of ours).
With that in mind, it’s best to think of tooling as a process that crosses several key milestones, rather than something that takes X number of days or months.
Steps of the Tooling Process
- 3D file modifications
- Red Wax 3D prints
- Silicon Mold to create Resin Masters
- Disassembly Engineering
- Ceramic composite Positive
- Molten Steel Negative
- Testing, polishing, refining
Step 1: 3D File Modifications
Before tooling, and even before we launch a Kickstarter, we have created 3D models of all the miniatures. These already went through a lengthy process from concept to concept art to 3D sculpting. Now, we end up with 3D files that are enormous, typically a few hundred MB. These are much larger and more complex than a typical 3D printed doodad that is made nowadays (for example, Shapeways restricts uploads at 64MB, whereas it is rare for us to have any single 3D model file be less than 150MB).
But our sculptors, as excellent as they are, do not always know how to most efficiently prepare them for OEM manufacturing. So, our factory takes the models and suggests minor tweaks and revisions that will enable manufacturing (and the rest of tooling) to be easier, faster, cheaper, or more efficient in some way. I personally review every single change suggested (and our art director occasionally does as well, when I request it). Most of these changes are super minor, as described in this Kickstarter update. Occasionally they’ve been a little more significant, but not in a way that would change the overall aesthetics. Basically, what we show as preview renders on Kickstarter pages is basically what it’s going to look like.
It can take several weeks – up to a month or more – for the factory to review all the models, make suggestions, and for us to approve them. It depends on how busy the tooling factory is, and how many (and how complex) the models for the project are.
Step 2: Red Wax 3D Prints
This is very straightforward – after all modifications are approved by us, the factory makes a high quality 3D print of the model with a resolution of surface detail higher than the human eye can detect. This just takes a few days, and they’ll send me pics to show it’s complete and that nothing looks out of place.
Step 3: Silicon Mold for Resin Masters
At step 3, they go through the entire process for creating a mold that could be used for resin miniatures. Now, don’t get me wrong – it’s a slightly different process, and one that could only handle a few resin minis from the mold, rather than a more permanent one that can make more resin models. But the takeaway here is that, as ONE STEP of making a steel mold for plastic (PVC) miniatures, the factory makes a silicon mold suitable for a resin miniature! This step necessarily involves many steps, but essentially boils down to a simple silicon casting from which emerges a resin master. This step takes several days or a few weeks depending on how many miniatures there are.
Step 4: Disassembly Engineering
Step 4 is the longest step and the most difficult and complex. This is the step where a good (or great) tooling factory is distinguished from a lesser one. This “step” involves many intermediate steps wherein the resin masters are turned into PU (polyurethane) versions in alternating sequences of negative/positives and split apart into various pieces that will ultimately be glued together to make the final model. In short, this is where the parts of the molds are engineered and crafted.
We have super complex molds that can turn into dozens of pieces, and this is where that happens – where the miniature is carefully and cleverly carved up. A lower quality process will result in mold lines in bad places – such as down the middle of a miniature’s face. In the old days of hobby gaming this was more common as it was easier and cheaper to simply make the part lines where it was more efficient from an engineering standpoint. But our tooling engineers know to do what’s best from an artistic standpoint. In other words, to have part lines that, in general, are in out of the way places (though sometimes this can’t be avoided). If you’re somewhat familiar with molds, perhaps with resin and silicone ones, you probably know the saying that you need to avoid “undercuts.” Yes, that’s basically true – the two halves of the mold in the machine must be able to physically separate (although they emerge as very soft plastic, having been liquid a half second before, so a little bit of undercutting is possible). But with very sophisticated engineering you can have models with plenty of “undercutted” shapes on the final model due to how the piece was carved up.
At the end of this process what you will end up with are a bunch of square and rectangular blocks with cavities of various model parts and channels between them and slots and pegs, very similar to the metal blocks below, except made out of a polyurethane material:
Step four takes ALL the time. It can take several months.
Step 5: Ceramic Composite Positive
Once they have a disassembled version in PU that they are satisfied with, they use it to create a ceramic composite positive (i.e., it looks like the miniatures themselves). This step is critical because ceramics can withstand the heat of molten steel.
Step 6: Molten Steel Negative
This is the only step of tooling I have not personally witnessed in operation. This is because this step always takes place in the middle of the night, when the cost for electricity in China is much cheaper than in the daytime. They place the ceramic positive on a bed of sand, heat up molten steel, and pour it over the positive to create negatives (the molds themselves).
Step 7: Testing, polishing, refining
We aren’t done yet! Once they have metal molds that can fit into injection machines there are several days or even weeks left in the process. They run the mold in the plastic injection machines (where hot liquid PVC is squirted through the channels into the mold where the parts are created) for testing. One of the things they do is to literally cover one half of the mold with ink, run the machine, and see if the flat parts (that meet up and match to the other half) have ink covering them. This is a simple way to test if the mold is accurate. But it’s not the only thing done. They must grind away small irregularities or mistakes, and on occasion even add steel to it (though this is MUCH less common, and more problematic if it has to be done).
It’s probably not a surprise to learn that the many steps the model goes through – from red wax 3D prints to resin “masters” to an indeterminate series of PU versions to a ceramic positive to a steel negative – the model may not be quite identical to the original digital version. So, during step 7 they have to do small refinements to the mold by comparing it to the original red wax 3D print and ensure it matches as perfectly as possible.
Once they have refined the molds to their satisfaction, they make a sample in the correct Pantone color that I provide and mail me a copy. This is called the “T-end” sample (for “tooling-end”). But if I do not approve it, they refine it more and it becomes “T-end-2” and so forth. I’ve had to send back T-ends many times over the years, but still only for a minority of tooled miniatures overall.
In any case, it is generally only T-end (or beyond) versions that I show to backers (though I’ve shown images of prior points along the process at times).
Once approved, and once I have manufacturing numbers (which I usually have in advance of T-end), the factory can begin mass production, which involves making all the pieces, and then gluing them together to create the miniatures in an assembly line. Then, packaging them in game boxes with the printed components and you have a full game!
Estimating How Long Tooling Takes
From this overview you may be beginning to see why it’s so difficult to estimate how long “tooling” takes beyond very broad strokes (such as “4 to 6 months” or something). Each step has a range of time it could take from a few days to several weeks or months on occasion. One step might be unusually long and another unusually short, and there’s no way to know beforehand really. Part of this is due to the complexity of our projects. And all of this is conditioned by the number of miniatures and molds needed for the project as well. While step 4 above is always the longest step, many others can take several weeks, and more than a month. What I typically do is take an average of each step and then use that as a guess for the entirety of tooling, but any of you who knows how averages really work will know this will generate a poor rule of thumb.
And thus, we’ve had projects in which it took less than 6 months for tooling, and other projects in which it took more than 1 year. That’s a big range. With my small sample size of a dozen projects at most, I can’t hope to properly predict how long each project’s tooling will take – and even though the factory engineers have MUCH more experience than me in how “long” tooling takes, due to the fact that this is OEM manufacturing and each miniature and project is technically uncharted territory (a given Planet Apocalypse miniature was never made before it was made), even tooling engineers will only give me a very broad guess as well. And thus it is.