There comes a point in time when a collector desires something more... be it vintage or not, the craving  is not mistakable and it yearns for something that goes beyond the normal and even the elusive variety of officially released pieces. It was while I was at this point that I wanted more information about prototypes.  I searched some different forums and talked to a good amount of owners of large collections that featured some unreal prototype items. I think the basic framework lies in understanding the process an item must go through before it becomes a full blown production piece. I would like to take some time to point out a few of the steps in the production of a toy. The following is courtesy of Sems Fir over at the prototype forum Behind the Toys, and I think it's one of the best explanations one can find to understand the prototype process. The article focuses on Star Wars action figures, but it's not too hard to envision the similar process that TOMY / HASBRO has used to create Zoids. This is reproduced here on Zoid.US with permission. 

Figure Creation Process

by Robert Musco

Step 1 Brainstorming: While new products are constantly being discussed and developed throughout the year, the Star Wars action figures that usually become available for retail sale start their journey roughly 13 months earlier in a layout brainstorming meeting held in the timeframe between November and December. Ideas are presented to Lucasflim for approval. Ideas submitted for approval can be altered by Lucasfilm. For example, an idea for a new Luke Skywalker in X - Wing pilot gear action figure could be submitted to Lucasfilm for approval, however Lucasfilm could state that while a new Luke Skywalker action figure is a good idea not to make a Luke action figure in X - Wing pilot gear but create a figure in Dagobah fatigues. If a scenario such as this occurs Lucasfilm and Hasbro would need to negotiate until a compromise is reached that is of the best interest for both parties.

Step 2 Sculpting Input: Once the character product line is selected and approved by Lucasfilm an Industrial Designer creates a sculpting input (or figure pattern) for the character that will become an action figure. The sculpting inputs are created in various ways from a drawing turnaround (a pattern that shows the front, back, and side views) to just a front view of the character. In addition, sculpting inputs can be created with a computer. The main purpose of the sculpting input is to give the sculptor the idea of the character's pose. Other information obtained from the design input pattern includes any articulation that may come with the figure, clothing pattern detail, and figure dimensions. Pictured below are two examples of Sculpting Input patterns.

Step 3 Engineering: After an Industrial Designer creates a sculpting input, the information is then given to an Engineer to develop any articulation that the action figure is going to have. In addition, Engineering communicates with the orient and handles troubleshooting should it arise during the creation process.

Step 4 Cost Engineering: The next step in the design process is cost engineering. Many issues are taken into consideration and decided with this step, such as how much the action figure will cost to produce, timing dates for delivery, delivery shipping costs, margins, painting, and royalties. In this step action figure accessories can be changed or eliminated from the design altogether.

Step 5 Sculpting: After Cost Engineering calculates the price it will cost to produce the figure Sculpting creates an example of the action figure either out of clay or out of a wax like material. This step is commonly known as a wax. Clay is sometimes used as it moves around easier than wax. Sculpting for an action figure is generally done at 104 percent (although some sculpting is done at 109 percent). The additional four percent is done to allow for the difference in shrinkage when the action figure goes from being in a hardcopy stage format to a first shot (see below) When sculpting creates a wax at 109 percent it is for roto casting purposes and is done for the shrinkage created when utilizing roto casting. Without getting into detail for roto casting the wax is essentially destroyed when going through the roto casting process. Even though it is rare a duplicate wax can be created, and is noticable by the parting line that can be seen. It generally takes two weeks to sculpt an action figure out of wax. The wax is then submitted to Lucasfilm for either approval or declined until changes that need to be made are done and then resubmitted for approval. 

Step 6 Casting Department: Once the wax receives approval from Lucasfilm the wax is given to the casting department to create hardcopies of the action figure. It takes the Casting Department roughly two weeks to complete this step. Roughly eight or nine hardcopies are created. Several hardcopies are painted to be utilized for reference, or for in house meeting presentations. One hardcopy will be painted and used as a paintmaster to utilize for reference or photography purposes. Generally three hardcopies are sent overseas to be utilized as a reference tool by the factory. One is utilized for tooling purposes, one will be utilized as a check model, and the third is a paintmaster for deco purposes. In times of need a fourth hardcopy will be sent to the orient as well. Hardcopies can be found either painted or unpainted, and are identical in size to the action figure wax, since hardcopies are cast off of the wax.

To create a hardcopy silicone molds are created by hand. The wax is separated into the component pieces that make the action figure. The number of separation pieces depends on the amount of articulation that the action figure is going to have. To create a hardcopy each separated piece will have a two step mold made. The finished wax parts are put into clay along the parting line leaving one half of the wax parts exposed.  This is done inside a metal box (top open) with approximately three to four inches of the box rising above the wax pieces.  The parts are then sprayed with a release agent (silicone). Then, rubber is poured into the box over the wax parts that have one half exposed, one half buried in clay, and the rubber is left to cure (dry). When cured (dry), the whole thing is turned over, the clay is removed, and an impression of the half of the wax pieces that were exposed are registered in the rubber. Then the mold is again placed (parts facing up) into the metal box. The wax and the rubber at the bottom of the box are sprayed with silicone, and rubber is poured over that to get the second half of the mold.  The two halves are pulled apart when the rubber is cured (dry), and the mold is now ready to have hardcopies created.  The mold is taken and clamped together. Once clamped together resin is injected into pre-made vent tubes created within the mold. Once the resin has cured (dried) the hardcopy piece that was created is carefully removed from the mold. Once the necessary hardcopy pieces are created the pieces are cleaned and prepared to assemble the hardcopy figure. To hold the action figure together either metal or plastic pins are utilized. 


Step 7: Engineering Pilots (First Shots): Once the hardcopy stage has been completed any necessary information and three (or four) hardcopies are sent overseas to the vendor to create the steel molds. From these steel molds engineering pilots commonly known as "first shots" are created. First shots are the first plastic mold injected examples of the action figure. The main purpose of first shots are to test the molds to see if they are filling correctly. In addition, first shots are also utilized to check to see if the action figure product assembles correctly, as well as the product detail. In this step the shrinkage from 104 percent to 100 percent can be seen from hardcopy to mold injected stage. Since the main purpose of first shots are to test the molds the vendor factory will utilize whatever colored plastic pellets are being utilized on the line. These first examples of first shots are non sonic welded, lack any copyright information, and some examples have hand writing on them. The sonic welding process basically involves the use of high frequency sound waves to create heat with friction through vibration to melt the plastic and "weld" the plastic together. First shots can be found in non production colors. First shots are utilized for various testing purposes, but the main testing purposes are for product safety. There are several stages involving first shots being created. A second group of first shots are created called Vendor Supplied Pilots. These first shots are assembled, and sonic welded, but are still not painted. After the second batch is created, a third batch is created and known as Paint Samples. These figures are just what the name states a fully painted example of the action figure. Paint Samples lack any copyright information. After the figure is approved by Lucasfilm the copyright information is added to the steel molds and a final batch of first shots are created. 

Step 8 Final Engineering Pilots: The final step in the creation process are Final Engineering Pilots. Commonly referred to as mock ups and carded samples, this is where the packaging of the action figure is checked for such things as if it's being packaged correctly, are the accessories displayed correctly, and is any paint from the action figure touching the blister bubble. There are three stages in which Final Engineering Pilots can be found: with the action figure(s) unpainted, with the action figure(s) painted, and with the final green signoff tag. The final approved green signoff tag has many departmental signoffs including Design, Marketing, Packaging / Engineering, Engineering, as well as QA (Quality Assurance). Once the action figure passes all the necessary tests and receives final approval from Lucasfilm, it is scheduled for retail sale release. Production runs vary from figure to figure and unless the information is released to the public, it is unknown how many of a particular figure is ordered to be produced.

A big THANKS! to Sems Fir (Robert Musco) over at BTT for allowing Zoid.US reproduce this article.

This has been a Zoid.US production. No image may be used without permission. 2008 -WIKD