Updated: Oct 6, 2019
Almost two years ago to the day, "Runeforge LLC" was registered as a business within the state of Virginia. (United States) Every action from that point forward brought us closer and closer to our dream of creating amazing miniatures for tabletop gaming. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way that creating amazing miniatures wasn't easy.
I started off right by reaching out to and hiring Josh O'hala. Neither of us had ever created a miniature before, but we thought that we could figure it out with enough time and encouragement from each other. Josh has always had a natural affinity towards art, and I have the rare talent of being able to bang my head against something until it gives. Together, I thought we would be unstoppable.
We set off trying to learn 3d modeling, and I invested the bulk of my startup cash into our first 3d printer. Over the following couple of months, Josh and I were able to create our first test models, and boy oh boy, was that an exciting time. However, it didn't take long to start running into problems. Being hit with roadblock after roadblock definitely pumped the brakes on our progress, but it hardened us to the many setbacks that were yet to come.
You see, we didn't know this at the time, but 3d printing is still very much at the frontier of tech and engineering. 3d printers were absolutely capable of creating beautiful objects, but the majority of the things created via 3d printing were created by engineers - not artists. Navigating and learning the software required was very similar to attempting to learn ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. We had no idea what we were looking at, or even how to begin to interpret it. I would actually contend that learning hieroglyphics would be easier as there is at least a wealth of reading material available to those who might be so inclined. Reading material for what we were trying to do was almost non-existent.
Thank God for forums and the other poor souls traveling down the 3d printing "Oregon Trail" beside us. None of us had all the answers, but together the 3d printing community was able to decode a lot of the seemingly unsolvable problems. It still remains one of the most pleasant, patient, and helpful communities I've ever encountered, and I am glad to have been part of it over the past two years.
When our models wouldn't stick to the build plate, I can't tell you how thankful I was to learn about aqua net hairspray from a fellow creator. It still remains the single greatest build plate adhesion I've ever used. Then when the prints wouldn't come off the build plate, there are no words to express the gratitude I had toward the creator who suggested putting the print in a freezer. After twenty minutes or so, what was once an iron grip of death had dissolved away to provide an effortless glide off the build plate.
With the help of the community, Josh's amazing work ethic, and my sheer bullheadedness, we were able to jump (or break through) all of the barriers until finally, we had something we thought was worth distributing. We showed our friends and our families. Everyone loved it. We received so many pledges of orders we couldn't contain our excitement - until we started doing the math.
Printers are great, but they are ssslllllooooooowwwwwwww. After we added up the print time required, it was going to take us over five months just to print out our initial batch of orders from family and friends. We knew this wasn't an option. We either had to purchase a dozen more printers or find another way. Enter: Injection Molding.
Injection Molding seemed to be a godsend to our problems. One model that would take three and a half hours on our 3d printer could be pumped out of an injection molding machine in about twenty seconds! As if that weren't amazing enough, we learned that molds can have multiple cavities. The average is around sixteen! Can you imagine? Going from one model every 3.5 hours to sixteen models every twenty seconds!?!? My mind was blown and we had found our solution. Or so we thought...
It turns out injection molding is very expensive. The machines are the size of buses, and the odor produced by one is toxic and will completely permeate the building it is located in. The molds themselves cost a few thousand dollars per cavity! That meant that one hole in a piece of metal was going to cost only slightly less than a new 3d printer! It didn't take long to realize that this job was quickly becoming much more than we could handle ourselves. We sought out professional help.
We searched for an expert in the field to ask for advice or sign on as a consultant, but after about two months of searching, it became apparent that those who knew the way to El Dorado weren't willing to reveal it to us. We then pursued third party manufacturers in the US. Over several weeks we spoke with, sent 3d files to, and received quotes from many third party manufacturers - each deal worse than the last.
It seemed that no matter who we decided to work with, the molds were going to cost a minimum of $2,500 - $5,000 per cavity (depending on aluminum or steel molds) Then they wanted us to pay a rather high price per unit created. It cost us about $0.05 - $0.08 in material cost to create our models using our 3d printers. However, all the quotes we received wanted us to pay between $0.70 - $1.25 for the exact same model - even after paying for mold cost. To top it off, almost every manufacturer had a minimum run significantly higher than we could realistically store and sell. (average between 10,000 - 50,000 units.) To an established business, this may seem ok. However, for us, the cost was prohibitive, to say the least. We just didn't have that kind of capital (cash) laying around.
Like many others, our search took us to China. I had discovered Alibaba and couldn't believe my eyes when the Chinese were willing to provide the exact same service for about 15% of the cost of the United States manufacturers. Even better, they were willing to work with smaller run sizes that we were comfortable with. ( 500 - 2,000 minimum units) It finally looked as though we would be able to make it happen.
With my newfound knowledge, our excellent looking models, and our sizable pledges of preorders (between 300-500) I was able to secure additional funding and pay for the molds to be created. Our premier set was to be a campground ambush set complete with a pavilion tent, two average-sized camping tents, a campfire, a tree stump with some extra wood and an axe, three trees (two different models), two bushes, and four unique bandits - all in all a great setup for a campsite ambush for your tabletop game. We paid for the samples (which they had 3d printed on their end using a wax printer.) They sent us pictures, and the models all looked great. We were really getting excited. Then came the issues...
Injection molding is difficult, especially when the people creating your molds don't speak the same language as you. All you have to go on are pictures and digital files. Before we had paid, our sales contact (who I assume is the only person around who had spoken a passable amount of English) had assured us that they could create all of our models exactly as they were depicted in our files. However, after paying, he had evidently handed the files off to their mold makers and had been told otherwise.
We had gone back and forth with them over a dozen rounds making edits to our models in order to make them easier to mold only to find out that some couldn't be done at all. Or rather, they could be done, but they didn't feel that they weren't making enough money on them to be worth the extra equipment they'd need. So our larger models were ultimately nixed. So long trees. Then the bushes became too difficult. They were forgotten as well. Several more rounds of edits were required before we finally had our molds made. Despite the headaches and frustration, we were still excited. We were so close... or so we thought.
About three months later, we received pictures of our models coming out of the molds. They did not look like our samples. Well, maybe if you looked at them from just the right angle...in the right lighting....and you squinted really hard.... Nah they still looked terrible. They only became worse as they were painted - revealing all of their crippling flaws. They were completely unusable. The worst parts were that we were out the bulk of our startup cash, and we had just wasted about six months with nothing to show.
Over the past few months, we have redoubled our efforts to create even better models, and we have had amazing receptions to all of the models that we have released. We would love to take another crack at injection molding our models, but we learned the hard way that we can't go into the easiest and cheapest option. Luckily, we have found a few more reputable and capable third party manufacturers with much better communication. The only catch is that they do charge a little more. That's why we have decided to focus on a soft launch while we build our catalog and grow our community.
At the time of this writing, we have been fortunate enough to gather a community of a couple of hundred fellow gamers who love tabletop miniatures as much as we do. We hope to be able to include our community in our designs and create miniatures that they would be happy and proud to have on their own gaming tables.
Ultimately, our goal is to crowdfund (via Kickstarter) our next set of molds once we have a large enough community and support. In the meantime, we'd love for you to get involved by checking out our miniatures. Let us know what you like and what you think we could be doing better. Let us know if there are other poses or weapon combinations that we could add to our current catalog, or what you'd love to see us do next.
If you'd really like to help us out, please consider purchasing some miniatures from us, and/or telling your friends about us. Word of mouth is still the best form of advertisement, and we would greatly appreciate and benefit from any amount of publicity.
Thank you for taking the time to read our story, and I hope to see you join our discord, youtube, twitter, or Instagram, community.