Sunday, 21 January 2018

Interview with Iain Lovecraft

I had an opportunity to do an interview with Iain Lovecraft, from Lovecraft Design & Manufacture, makers of the Jungle Fever kickstarter (hurry, it closes on Monday!) that I wrote about last week.
I asked a lot of questions and Iain kindly wrote a very interesting article about himself, 3D-printing, the company, what it is doing and future plans. That effectively answers all my questions and gives a very interesting view into the business end of our hobby.
I took the liberty to put it some pics here and there to illustrate what Iain is up to.

Enjoy!

First of all, let me introduce myself, my name is Iain Lovecraft and I am the owner, well senior partner of Lovecraft, Design and Manufacture. I specify partner, because it is a family business and as such is owned by our family members. I am a third generation engineer, our business was started by my grandfather in 1947 a few years after he came back from serving in the second world war and settled down in the United Kingdom. My grandfather was given an MBE(Member of the British Empire) title for his services rendered as an engineer by the queen. Unfortunately he passed away before the turn of the century, but my father 'Lovecraft senior' is still alive and well, although now retired after working his whole life, also as an engineer and building the company up.
I think this background is important because it sets the scene for some of the elements I will explain later. For example, my relation with H.P. Lovecraft. Although I cannot trace a direct and clear  genealogy with this genius of the cosmic horror genre, my grandfather was a big fan and was the one who first dragged me into the horror/fantasy genre by reading and guiding me through Lovecraft´s short stories and other authors, like Edgar  Allan Poe and great sci-fi from Jules Verne and H.G.Wells. A truly heavy but inspiring cocktail for a young teenage boy, but it served to spark off a unique perspective of the world.

It was inevitable that I would stumble onto role playing games, at that time almost exclusive to Dungeons and Dragons and later war-games and miniatures from Citadel, now 'Games Workshop'. Whilst I was in University in Nottingham, UK I worked for a while with 'Citadel' as a student work experience, I remember they were situated in Friar Lane where they had a small production facility on the second floor. I was very involved with miniatures and role playing games till after I finished my M.Sc. In Industrial Engineering, but then I started work in our family business under my father and did my Ph.D. later which left little time for much else.

Lovecraft Design and Manufacture has centred in engineering mechanical parts for other business, we also do structural engineering studies and consultation work for the construction industry. So I suppose the big question is, how do you go from engineering work to designing and creating games models? Well, the truth is that the work is related, we have the automation and machines to produce precision parts and molds and we are well versed in architecture and construction, so scale design and buildings is not a problem.
I have a friend who asked me to design a 'Blood Bowl' stadium for him, so I created a virtual model of it on CAD. After we saw the first renders come out, I knew I had to build the model and so the whole ´Blood Bowl Pro Stadium' project came to life. After placing it on Facebook, I realised the design was very popular and people were asking me to make them one. So I set about making the whole thing modular and decided to put it up on Kickstarter.
Our first Kickstarter finished in October and was funded successfully. One of the major problems we face with a 'Blood Bowl' product is that the BB community is very small compared to other similar games. BB has been left on the side by its creators, Games Workshop ever since it first came out and I played it 30 years ago. It was only because GW saw that the product was proving popular in recent days with the revival of some BB tournaments such as NAF, that GW picked up this product again and launched its 2016 BB edition. Another problem was that the already small market is split up into race factions, meaning that normally a user that plays with a Dwarf team will want a Dwarf theme stadium and will not buy and use other race themes. So for the project to be a success we were looking at having to expand to as many race designs as possible to capture as much of the market as we could. This would turn out to be a huge investment so we decided to launch our first Kickstarter featuring two races and have now launched a third theme, which is the Mesoamerican theme. We intend to launch a forth theme next month which will feature the 'Úndead' showcasing all kinds of Gothic architecture. The idea behind this is to allow backers to finance the project in small parts. Many of our backers have been very gracious and have contributed on all three released themes, which has helped us a lot.
In order to bolster the funding for these expansions and after an overwhelming demand from our backers and followers, we decided to release designs associated with the theme. Backers urged for us to do this, because they wanted to customize and 3D print the parts themselves. Other followers simply wanted to use our designs in other games, specifically for role-playing and war-games. We saw that there was a huge demand for our designs and that this was a fantastic opportunity to open up this same product to a more varied market.
Integrating this project into our company's production rooster has taken some initial convincing of all partners, specifically my father who now goes around telling friends how his son is turning his engineering firm into a toy company! Alas, engineering business rolls on as per usual, but we have dedicated a small annex to our workshop in Spain for the creation of resin molds and design. We are now setting up a small production station in Houston, Texas also. The idea is to avoid shipping physical resin models over to USA, by simply shipping the molds and producing the models there. This makes sense when a large part of our customer base is in the USA. Obviously this brings us to the fact that digital media does not have to be shipped and as such is a good prospect for international business. I will discuss our view on selling virtual produce next, it definitely has its pros and its cons.
There has been a lot of hype going on with 3D printers, specifically with the FDM(Fusion Deposition Modeling) variety which are very accessible at hobby level. Modellers and war-games enthusiasts have taken to this and the division is clear. There is the die hard modeller who will prefer to go old school and burn all 3D printers on the pyre and their counterpart, those who will swear that 3D printers are the future and will enable them to replicate all, as seen on Star Trek. Of course there are those in the middle who don´t understand what all the hype is about and are still deciding if to buy a printer or not.

The bad news is that FDM printing has reached its pinnacle at hobby level, this technology cannot be improved because of physical limitations. It cannot be made to go faster, because it relies on depositing(FDepositionM) a thin noodle on top of another by means of extrusion and gravity. It is also not easy to reduce the size of the noodle being laid, because the problems that arise are exponential, so there is a workable limit to the reduction, especially at hobby level. This draws us to the inevitable fact that 3D printing will remain slow and will always show those strata lines. Still, having said this, you can get great prints at the highest resolution, which require a huge amount of post process work, but can be turned into fantastic looking pieces. This goes hand in hand with the hobbyist or modeller who has plenty of time to burn.
Our main concern on releasing and selling our designs was if the whole thing made business sense or not. The short of it is, that it can make sense if we can beat illegal reproduction, re-selling and sharing of our design. The best existing business model for something like this, I suppose is ITunes. Make the product accessible and economically viable for people to buy, so they don't feel the urge to obtain the product illegally. To this effect we have re-built our website and will soon be offering all our digital media at very reasonable prices. We have also secured all our web through DMCA and have contracted professional services that will review the net and perform takedowns were necessary.
Another aspect would be to consider if it makes sense for the user to 3D Print their own models and in so doing skip the manufacturer. Many are holding 3D Printing as a revolution, the 'Marxists' of print herald an end to the manufacturer's monopoly, were the future will be one where you are finally liberated from oppression and you can produce at home without paying the evil manufacturer. This impression I suppose is derived from the misconception that you download a free print file and hours later you are holding it in your hand for no apparent charge. This is just a delusion as the supposedly free model you have just completed does have cost.

The printer has an initial cost which needs to be paid along with a maintenance fee every time you use it, plus a running charge in electricity. The filament material out of which the model is built must be paid for, along with its shipping. So basically you are paying for your product but just changing what manufacturer you pay. Instead of paying a model maker, you are now instead paying a machine builder, electricity department and a plastic filament manufacturer. Given that this enables you to choose what you pay for and break down the cost, this is probably going to reduce the cost, especially if you cut the retailer out.

You have to consider that although you are reducing the cost, this is offset against the quality of the product you are getting. There is also the danger that if you stop paying the model maker, preferring to pay other manufacturers for materials to produce yourself, you are reducing the capacity and incentive for these craftsmen to stay in business. When you buy a model, you are not only paying for the physical model but for the artistic content involved in all its design process.

My opinion is that 3D printing is fine, but it is not the panacea the hype is making it out to be. The short of it is... You cannot print everything, there are vast limits to this hobby based technology.
There is also another level which impedes the production with 3D Printing, were it is possible, but the outcome is just too expensive, time consuming or quality poor, that it's just not worth going through the trouble to print. A pyrite victory of sorts, if you will.
Yet at another level which is close to our modus operandi is that the distributed files do not pose major challenges to our customer when printing. We must realise that not everyone has industry quality machines and experience to go with it and that our objective is to produce a model that is incredible to look at, but easy to print with the least post process work attached to it.
Some of our models are only offered as resin cast because it's the only way we feel comfortable in delivering the product to our customers, due to their difficulty or impossibility to print. (Impossibility also denotes that although possible, the finished product is not quality or cost effective.)
Many of our pieces are hand sculpted and are then either scanned or molded depends if we want to integrate them with some other CAD piece. Typically these sculpts have great detail which translates to more than 7 million polygons in CAD. These digital files are to heavy to be sliced by hobby level enthusiasts and cutting down on their size means losing quality.
Another example where it is not practical to print pieces, is when the piece to be produced is too large or needs to be reproduced many times over.
Some models where made to be printed and others just beg to be cast. 3D printing is but a tool that has incredible benefits, but also comes with great limitations, so one must choose wisely what tools to use or inevitably be limited by them.
For our third theme release, we chose the mesoamerican theme, because I thought it was a theme that had not been done to death before and had lots to offer. This type of architecture lacks load bearing beams, archways and complex structural building strategies, but it has a lot to offer in historical and religious background. It is heavily associated with legends and myths, making for great architectural interpretations of their godly phenomena.
I like all my designs even if verging on fantasy, to be set against a realistic or at least historical background. Out of habit, due to my profession, I like the designs to work from a structural point of view and have some kind of reason or basis behind them. I am a great follower of Leonardo Da´vinci works and love the way he could take a natural or scientific observation and turn it into a flight of fancy, a unique design with a scientific understanding behind it, but yet unreal.  I call this 'The Architectural Farse', were the design is based on real terms, but yet is too far fetched or aspects to far emphasized to be able to attain reality. This can now be attained at home through CAD and 3D printing, making for some very interesting and 'unreal' pieces.
Our next Kickstarter, which will come out in February will be a Gothic representation, combining fantasy aspects featuring 'Undead' along with horror and tons of pre-renaissance architecture. This will accompany our 4th Blood Bowl themed 'Undead' resin pitch, but will predominantly be a 3D printable digital media sale.

Hopefully we will see you there, thanks for the read.


Dr.Iain Lovecraft, Eng.D.

A big thank you to Iain, and good luck with the kickstarter (that is doing real well these last hours).
I hope you all enjoy this and if there is interest in these kinds of articles I might do more, as I certainly enjoyed doing it.
Give me input, please.

All photos, renders and illustrations © Lovecraft Design & manufacture and used with permission.

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