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How is machine printing done?


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#1 nemesis4670

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Posted 29 April 2012 - 10:16 AM

I have been searching for this answer all over the place and can't seem to find it.  As many of you know there are people out there who have discovered the art of machine printing onto blank minifigs.  Some are selling custom printed minifigs on eBay with permanent printing on faces, torsos, and even legs along with custom clothing and accessories from places like brickforge and the like.

My question is if anyone knows what kind of machine is used to print on ABS plastic and LEGO minifigs/pieces specifically?  If anyone can even just tell me the name of the machine used I would be thankful.  I'm trying to research into it and see what the average price range is for these machines so I can see if it's feasible.

Any information whatsoever would be great.  At this point it seems like it's a trade secret that certain people were lucky enough to figure out and are not giving it up. Rather than spreading the knowledge so others can do their own take on customization they are keeping it to themselves so they can continue to monetize it and minimize any potential competition. I've tried asking multiple sellers who print their own minifigs with no response.

Anyone know anything about it?  Thanks in advance!

#2 JopieK

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Posted 29 April 2012 - 01:22 PM

Roland has a printer for it. There is a Belgian guy that can do this (ask at BeLUG).

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#3 Praiter Yed

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Posted 29 April 2012 - 04:30 PM

Ah, 'Machine Printing', the holy grail of Lego customisers...

I believe what you need is a solvent based flat-bed printer...

I've previously had a look around the internet and found this, I hadn't seen any made by Roland but I guess that would be this one. As you can see, even though described as 'affordable', costs are very prohibitive. I've just done another quick search and The Print Master Monet also sounds interesting - but no indication of cost (so probably a lot!).

With the speed that technology moves at the moment we should cross our fingers and hope that a truly affordable machine comes along in the near future.
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#4 nemesis4670

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Posted 29 April 2012 - 10:06 PM

View PostPraiter Yed, on 29 April 2012 - 04:30 PM, said:

Ah, 'Machine Printing', the holy grail of Lego customisers...

I believe what you need is a solvent based flat-bed printer...

I've previously had a look around the internet and found this, I hadn't seen any made by Roland but I guess that would be this one. As you can see, even though described as 'affordable', costs are very prohibitive. I've just done another quick search and The Print Master Monet also sounds interesting - but no indication of cost (so probably a lot!).

With the speed that technology moves at the moment we should cross our fingers and hope that a truly affordable machine comes along in the near future.

Thanks this is a good start.  I was expecting the prices to be within the $10,000 range and wouldn't have been suprised by that. But $30,000 seems excessive and there is probably cheaper machines as those ones look like multi-purpose and have extra functions I don't need. Unless I found a host of applications for it that were profitable other than just LEGO minifigs like personalizing items and stuff.  I've noticed these guys make about $50-60 per minifig if they do the right ones and if you can churn out hundreds of them you'd make your money back pretty quickly.

I know some other people also use engraving to print on minifigs.  Curious about that too as it's a more permanent solution.

#5 ED-209

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Posted 30 April 2012 - 01:27 PM

Well the general industry standard for printing onto a 3D object like this is called "Pad printing".
http://en.wikipedia....ki/Pad_printing

I don't know for certain that it's what Lego use in their factories, but I've always assumed so.
It's a fairly involved process, but you can generally find specialist printing agencies who can do custom orders for you. They print corporate logos onto pens, stress-balls, that kind of thing. I looked into it about a year ago when I was doing designs for elves in the style of the official Collectable Minifig elf, but the only places local to me required huge set-up costs and huge print-runs, which turned me off it. I'm talking in the vicinity of hundreds of dollars for each screen (so that's per colour!)  *oh2*

But if you can find a printer with decent rates and low runs, you'd have it set.

Best of luck with it!  :thumbup:

#6 Praiter Yed

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Posted 30 April 2012 - 05:05 PM

View PostED-209, on 30 April 2012 - 01:27 PM, said:

Well the general industry standard for printing onto a 3D object like this is called "Pad printing".
http://en.wikipedia....ki/Pad_printing
I believe pad printing is the technique used by Lego. Screen printing can also be used for print onto some 3d objects, but both of these involve additional processes ie plate/screen making, actually producing the pads to print from and therefore additional machinery and skills. The majority of cost in printing comes from set-up time rather than materials, that's why the more you order the more the cost per item reduces.

With a flat-bed digital printer using solvent based inks you can print direct from your PC and although generally used for large format work some desktop versions are now available. This is the only realistic option for somebody who wants to print custom minifigs at home - the only drawback is the price tag.

If you could find a commercial printer with one of these machines who was willing to give it a try the cost would be nowhere near as astronomical as paying for pad/screen printing. But what you would most likely need to do is print multiple figures at the same time, probably build a Lego 'jig' to hold multiple parts and print in one pass. No doubt there would be an additional charge for setting up the artwork.

EDIT: Cheapest machine I've seen so far.
ADDITIONAL EDIT:  Even Cheaper!

Edited by Praiter Yed, 30 April 2012 - 06:01 PM.

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#7 nemesis4670

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Posted 01 May 2012 - 03:14 AM

The Freejet 320 Plus looks like a good start.  Affordable price range and it has no color restrictions so it can reproduce any color.  Auto-height sensor AND auto cleanup are two very great features.  I just always thought these types of machines would melt through a LEGO figure but I guess not.

But yea if I were to do it I would think of it as an investment.  I of course don't have that kind of money to just throw away just to indulge in it myself to make a few personal minifigs for myself only.  I would make it an investment into an online and/or eBay business to either produce my own line minifigs to sell at auction like most others are doing or I would setup a website to do custom orders and design just to offset the costs of producing minifigs for my personal collection.

No offense to the current custom machine printing fabricators but I think most of them came across the machines for other purposes and their kids asked them to make a custom minifig and they realized how to monetize it. Their imagination seems to be limited to custom versions of characters that already exist as LEGO minifigures in an official capacity or directly related to them.  The whole reason I wanted to do this was to expand the minifig universe into the imaginative spectrum of people with humble financial status who make their custom minifigs with decals and stuff.

My goal would be to make high quality machine printed minifigs of popular video game characters such as Resident Evil, Metal Gear Solid,  Legend of Zelda (with machine printed shield!!!), Gordon Freeman, Final Fantasy, and others just to start.  Then dive into minifigs of popular movie and TV characters (even current popular genres in demand like Game Of Thrones, Dexter, The Walking Dead) and then maybe some more obscure comic book characters.  

If I were to do them in mass production I would design a jig to hold the minifigures in place so I could churn out a large quantity.  The price tag may seem hefty but if you look on eBay custom minifigs can sell at auction for $50 or more if you know the right minifigs to do and I bet the ideas I have would sell in even larger quantity.  Sell a few hundred minifigs and you already make your money back on the machine and then from there you can break even on materials and then eventually start making profit.

It's not that farfetched as I've seen 100s of one single custom Nick Fury and Spiderman machine printed minifigs selling at $50 a pop from one seller.  So he probably made all of his money back in the first few months more so than with whatever original function the machine was meant for.  LEGOs never seem to fall in popularity and they expand across all ages already so the market is already there and you don't have to do any work except supply the demand.

Selling and/or collecting LEGO in any capacity seems to be a solid business model as LEGOs appreciate in value better than most stocks do these days and they never ever seem to go down in value.   The longer sets/minifigs are retired the higher the price goes and custom minifigs that you can't get anywhere else jump ahead of the priority list in my book.  People want stuff that they can't even get from LEGO themselves but at the same quality that LEGO produces.   Custom minifigs with decals (even high quality waterslide decals) are COOL but they just don't have that same feel as a permanent machine printed minifig.   The machine printed ones feel like a LEGO production that could quite possibly be a reality.

I will keep you guys updated and if I get my hands on a machine I will start a thread to document my journey of setting it up and the learning process to finally share the information that all of these other fabricators have been keeping to themselves in order to squander all the riches.  To me it's about a love for LEGO and the last priority is making money.  I would only sell them to make my money back on the machine for the most part and then from there it's about spreading the knowledge and making some really cool minifigs!


Thanks for the help.  I wrote down the names of everyone who helped me in this thread.  If months from now I somehow manage to become a machine printed fabricator of minifigs I will definitely offer a customized minifig on the house to each one of you.  Either one that's part of my current work load or one that you think up and work with me to create.

Edited by nemesis4670, 01 May 2012 - 03:18 AM.


#8 purpleparadox

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Posted 01 May 2012 - 03:46 AM

View Postnemesis4670, on 01 May 2012 - 03:14 AM, said:

Thanks for the help.  I wrote down the names of everyone who helped me in this thread.  If months from now I somehow manage to become a machine printed fabricator of minifigs I will definitely offer a customized minifig on the house to each one of you.  Either one that's part of my current work load or one that you think up and work with me to create.
Dang! I was about to comment, 10 minutes before you posted that! Missed my chance for a minifig. :laugh: Oh well. It doesn't bother me, I'm not greedy. I was going to ask for you to keep us up to date with your customization adventure, and share my thoughts on the matter.

Waterside decals can range from looking poor to flawless. But I don't particularly love the risk of making a bad decal. So, I'd love to get my designs printed straight onto the minifig with a machine.

It's expensive at the moment, but (as you said), it wouldn't be that hard to make your money back. Also, the design is more likely to withstand playing and roughness if it's printed on. I hope someday I'll buy something to print straight onto the fig. Maybe it'll get cheaper in the future.

Well, best of luck with whatever you decide to do! I'm sure it'll work out great.

Edited by purpleparadox, 01 May 2012 - 03:47 AM.

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#9 NickAb

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Posted 06 May 2012 - 12:49 PM

View Postnemesis4670, on 01 May 2012 - 03:14 AM, said:

No offense to the current custom machine printing fabricators but I think most of them came across the machines for other purposes and their kids asked them to make a custom minifig and they realized how to monetize it. Their imagination seems to be limited to custom versions of characters that already exist as LEGO minifigures in an official capacity or directly related to them.  The whole reason I wanted to do this was to expand the minifig universe into the imaginative spectrum of people with humble financial status who make their custom minifigs with decals and stuff.

I believe they would like to expand design range and produce minifigures that resemble popular games or movies characters. But there is a problem. You cannot mass-produce recognisable mini figures of such characters without licensing. You probably can print one superman torso on request, as a commissioned project, but you can't put up a web store and offer Spiderman, Dexter, etc. for selling. Some copyright holders will most likely sue you.

Besides licensing problems you'll need to make really good and popular designs that are made in TLG style (note that you cannot take someone's design and print it for sale without permission). So there might be quite a few flaws on way to scuces in making customs. But I'm looking forward to see your report if you will go all the way.

Edited by NickAb, 06 May 2012 - 04:06 PM.


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#10 Nick4uuk

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Posted 28 May 2012 - 02:58 PM

You could probably make your own figures now using a 3D printer..

#11 Omicron

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Posted 28 May 2012 - 09:43 PM

View PostNickAb, on 06 May 2012 - 12:49 PM, said:

but you can't put up a web store and offer Spiderman, Dexter, etc.
Welcome to the 21st Century. Everyone in the Lego custom business do that. And even ebay.

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Some copyright holders will most likely sue you.
They can, but they don't. There really is no case for it. I always find it interesting how people are always like "making customs is illegal and copyright blah blah blah" but we been at this for over 10 years and no one has a problem with it, and most find it flattering.

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#12 nemesis4670

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Posted 29 May 2012 - 11:11 PM

View PostOmicron, on 28 May 2012 - 09:43 PM, said:

Welcome to the 21st Century. Everyone in the Lego custom business do that. And even ebay.

They can, but they don't. There really is no case for it. I always find it interesting how people are always like "making customs is illegal and copyright blah blah blah" but we been at this for over 10 years and no one has a problem with it, and most find it flattering.

-Omi

Actually what I was saying was that the current machine printers PRIMARILY do licensed characters.  Their imagination seems limited to stuff LEGO has already put out rather than making stuff we can't get.   Like video game based characters such as Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Legend of Zelda, Half-Life, etc;  That's what I would be interested in.  However,  this guy christo makes some amazing ones.  I actually just bought a custom Green Lantern and Nick Fury off christo.  

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How awesome is that?  Not only Face and Torso printing but also ARM and BACK printing.  He sometimes prints on the legs and hips too.  The color and detail is even better in person.  I swear this guys stuff is better than what LEGO puts out itself.

I don't think they can sue you for simply making a minifigure.  But I do notice that they only list one figure at a time... and don't offer them in large quantities.  I'm not sure if that's to stay within the guidelines of the "law" or if it's because they want to make more money.

Christo will only list one Green Lantern at a time for instance...  and because there's only one available at one time the bids go up to $100 for a single minifig.  Then he just lists another as soon as the auction ends.  So it could just be a business strategy.

So far my venture is at a halt although I have found some machines that seem suitable for this purpose.  But unless I were to have a business setup to sell mass quantities the machine just wouldn't see enough use for it to be financially worth it.  But I'm sure if I setup a business similar to what others have I can easily get customers.

But here's some information for you guys... Christo actually offers custom printing services.  You send him the parts and the design you want printed and he sends them back.  He said that it's 50 cents per color per print.  But that it'll be more expensive if you don't buy an entire jigs worth of printed parts.  Meaning if you just want a single head printed it'll be more expensive per part.  

Maybe we can all chip in and get a bunch of our stuff made?  I sent him an e-mail back asking how many minifigures fit in a jig so I know how many to buy to keep the 50 cent price.  But it looks like if you wanted a simple minifigure with 2-3 colors it would be around $2 per minifig.   So if a jig holds 50 minifigs you're looking at $100 which is definitely a GOOD deal.

But he's extremely hard to get a hold of for obvious reasons and he's all the way in South Africa.  It took about 2 weeks to get the minifigs I bought from him.  So if you don't mind waiting 2 weeks and have $100 to spare you could probably get like 50 custom printed minifigs from him.   Not bad.

#13 Omicron

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Posted 30 May 2012 - 12:19 AM

View Postnemesis4670, on 29 May 2012 - 11:11 PM, said:

snip
Yeah Christo does make excellent figs, and I have them. But the difference with his (and everyone elss) work, is that he doesn't replicate what Lego already achieved, and makes his own style. Take his Green Lantern. This fig is more accurate to Ryan Reynolds than Lego's, and the hair is custom molded too. His other figs are also like that, and some he made before Lego made theirs (Like his old Kit Fisto and Aayla Secura). He does make them to order too. He even prints designs for others and gains permission to sell them (as with his Red Hood and Hulk).

Also:

Quote

Like video game based characters such as Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Legend of Zelda, Half-Life, etc;
You just got my attention with that. I make custom figs right out of Final Fantasy and Zelda. You have my support man.

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#14 Solscud007

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Posted 30 May 2012 - 08:18 PM

With regards to transformer toys we use the term Tampo Printing.

Like this.

#15 Flipz

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Posted 30 May 2012 - 10:47 PM

You know, I bet if you partnered up with ED-209 for designs, the two of you could start up a VERY profitable setup.  ED-209's designs are some of the best I've seen (remember his custom CS-style Elf designs?), and most of his work seems to be the sort of figures ideal for army-building (and thus, for mass production).  You should definitely get in touch with him via PM, see what the two of you can work out. :thumbup:

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#16 purpleparadox

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 12:27 AM

View PostFlipz, on 30 May 2012 - 10:47 PM, said:

You know, I bet if you partnered up with ED-209 for designs, the two of you could start up a VERY profitable setup.  ED-209's designs are some of the best I've seen (remember his custom CS-style Elf designs?), and most of his work seems to be the sort of figures ideal for army-building (and thus, for mass production).  You should definitely get in touch with him via PM, see what the two of you can work out. :thumbup:
Yes, absolutely do this! His Castle decals are amazing, if you directly print them you'll end up with a ton of money! A ton of my money, anyway. :tongue:

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#17 Omicron

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 01:07 AM

View Postpurpleparadox, on 31 May 2012 - 12:27 AM, said:

Yes, absolutely do this! His Castle decals are amazing, if you directly print them you'll end up with a ton of money! A ton of my money, anyway. :tongue:
Printing is expensive, and his costs would have to be split with Ed since it's his work.

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#18 purpleparadox

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 01:17 AM

View PostOmicron, on 31 May 2012 - 01:07 AM, said:

Printing is expensive, and his costs would have to be split with Ed since it's his work.

-Omi
I know, I wasn't trying to speak too literally when I said "you'll make a ton of money." I just think lots of people would like this idea.

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#19 Flipz

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 05:30 AM

View PostOmicron, on 31 May 2012 - 01:07 AM, said:

Printing is expensive, and his costs would have to be split with Ed since it's his work.

-Omi

But that's the beauty of it.  ED could make the designs, Nemesis would deal with the printing and supplies, and the partnership prospers.  Doing everything on one's own isn't the only way to run a business; the way I see it, by partnering with ED-209, he'd be supplying a demand that is very prevalent among the minifig customization community: that is, durable prints of ED-209's work.  It might take a larger number of orders for Nemesis to break even, since he'd be splitting revenues with ED-209, but the number of orders coming in would increase exponentially, and so Nemesis would actually break even faster. :wink:

Just my two cents. :wink:

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#20 nemesis4670

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 08:40 PM

View PostOmicron, on 30 May 2012 - 12:19 AM, said:

Yeah Christo does make excellent figs, and I have them. But the difference with his (and everyone elss) work, is that he doesn't replicate what Lego already achieved, and makes his own style. Take his Green Lantern. This fig is more accurate to Ryan Reynolds than Lego's, and the hair is custom molded too. His other figs are also like that, and some he made before Lego made theirs (Like his old Kit Fisto and Aayla Secura). He does make them to order too. He even prints designs for others and gains permission to sell them (as with his Red Hood and Hulk).

Also:

You just got my attention with that. I make custom figs right out of Final Fantasy and Zelda. You have my support man.

-Omi


I meant in the sense that Green Lantern already exists as a LEGO minifig.  I don't think LEGO wanted it to look like Ryan Reynolds though... more like the comic book which is more accurate IMO.  But I love his version too.  Are you sure that headpiece is custom?  I think I've seen it before...could be wrong.  I want to make characters such as the ones I named which have never been produced by or licensed to LEGO.  I know christo also makes some characters that LEGO hasn't made but they pretty much are still in the same DC/Marvel universe that LEGO already released.

Video game based minifigs would be a HOT commodity...  especially machine printed ones in high quality.  There's a guy on eBay who sells minifigs from these same video games I mentioned but he does it with decals and it's a little bit of a shoddy work.  Even still he makes a fortune off them... $20 a pop and sells 100s of them.  I ordered a custom Kratos and Young Link minifig from him and you have to be standing like 10 feet away for them to look like a real LEGO minifig... when you look up close it's pretty obvious that it's stickers.  So it's not really the quality I prefer but a cool alternative for the time being.

Machine printed no matter how close you look can look better than LEGO's printing... simply because you're printing in small qualities and so the consistency in the print quality is MUCH superior.  Whereas LEGO prints millions and there are always chances of printing issues on that scale.

Teaming up with someone isn't out of the question if they have designs that are in demand.  But I already pretty much have the designs for the video game characters I would like to produce.  They just need to be edited to be transparent I'm assuming for the machine printing process.  I'll figure it out when I get my hands on the machine but I think that's how it has to be.

I think my first line of minifigs would be Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, Squall Leonhart, Gordon Freeman, G-Man, Solid Snake, Link from Zelda, and a combo of Chris and Claire Redfield with a zombie.

My goal is the quality that christo produces and possibly even better by adding some stuff from brickforge and stuff.  Things like the buster sword and crowbars will make all the difference.   I have to see how hard it is to print on rounded surfaces... because if I could I would even go as far as to print red handle on the silver brickforge crowbars to make it perfectly accurate to Gordon Freemans crowbar.  Stuff like that would be my dream.

To make something that looks as good as LEGO produces if not better.  I know it would make a fortune but primarily I just want them for myself.. I would seriously have a blast creating any minifig I can dream up.  :grin:
Don't get me wrong... I love his minifigs.  Nickfury

Edited by nemesis4670, 31 May 2012 - 08:42 PM.


#21 Praiter Yed

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Posted 31 May 2012 - 11:47 PM

I don't own any Christo customs but I have admired them from afar. Given what you say about the quality of them I would guess that they are pad printed. I still stand by what I said earlier in this thread, that digital flat-bed printers are the most accessible to customisers (although still prohibitive on cost), but if you aim to get a similar quality to Christo I don't think a digital flat-bed printer is going to achieve that - I suppose you'd need to get a trial print from the suppliers prior to committing to buy.

With regards to design, if you intend to do the design work yourself that's ideal, but I suppose if you see anything you like by other customisers it could be worth making a freelance/one-off production deal with them. I reckon most customisers would be up for seeing their designs machine printed and earning a bit of cash on the side.
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#22 Omicron

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Posted 01 June 2012 - 01:00 AM

View Postnemesis4670, on 31 May 2012 - 08:40 PM, said:

I think my first line of minifigs would be Cloud Strife, Sephiroth, Squall Leonhart, Gordon Freeman, G-Man, Solid Snake, Link from Zelda, and a combo of Chris and Claire Redfield with a zombie.
Ha, I made all those (except G-Man). :P

If you need some help in terms of accessories, I can lead you on the right path. I consider myself the Lego Video Game aficionado.

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Are you sure that headpiece is custom?
Yes it is. :)

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#23 karl1

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Posted 02 June 2012 - 05:28 PM

I would be a partner too. I have cash to invest and could be in charge of selling, shipping etc...

#24 LuxorV

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Posted 02 June 2012 - 06:15 PM

Please try to cut the private future-business talks and keep them to PMs. Thanks. :wink:

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#25 nemesis4670

nemesis4670

    Posts: 14
    Joined: 01-March 12
    Member: 27060

Posted 16 June 2012 - 05:42 AM

View PostOmicron, on 01 June 2012 - 01:00 AM, said:

Ha, I made all those (except G-Man). :P

If you need some help in terms of accessories, I can lead you on the right path. I consider myself the Lego Video Game aficionado.

Yes it is. :)

-Omi


That's cool I would love to see.  Although I was referring to doing them as high quality machine prints.  I consider them two totally different things.  Even with waterslide decals it's just not quite there.

View PostLuxorV, on 02 June 2012 - 06:15 PM, said:

Please try to cut the private future-business talks and keep them to PMs. Thanks. :wink:

You're referring to people offering to invest in a business that doesn't exist yet, right? Not me? I hope I'm allowed to garner information on machine printing? Never saw a rule against that. It would be pretty hard to do through PMs without knowing who to talk to first.

I started this thread simply to get information on how it's done so I could invest in it myself.  I didn't ask for anyone to invest in my business venture.  People just said it on their own.   I'm looking to go solo to be honest just to start off and once I'm established maybe I'll consider buying designs from others.

I don't know if this is any help with the guys who have knowledge on this subject but Christo told me that he has to create a printing press for every unique design.  So he's claiming even if it's multiple LEGO heads if they all have a different design printed on them he needs to make a separate printing press and that each press holds about 50 parts.

If this sounds familiar to you and you can better narrow down what he's using that would be cool.

Edited by nemesis4670, 16 June 2012 - 05:44 AM.




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