By Mark Micheli
(This story ran in the Feb. 17, 2015 edition of the Boston Globe.)
You don’t have to be a psychotic villain, plotting world domination while stroking a hairless cat in your lap, to want a “Mini-Me.”
Entrepreneur Yifei Zhang is betting the market for his lifelike figurines extends beyond characters from an Austin Powers movie.
Zhang, 28, of Malden, owns 3D Bean, which makes lifelike sandstone figurines by using 3D printing technology. He spent the past year developing a technique that uses 90 cameras to create 3D images in a small office in Malden Square. He is now ready to start marketing his services from a studio in Boston’s South End, where he is hoping to get more exposure.
“This product is very similar to a photo. It saves a moment in time and that is its value,” Zhang said. “It’s not just sandstone. It’s a moment that you won’t be able to capture again.”
The statues range in price from $319 to $1,299, and range in height from about 4 inches to 11-½ inches. Zhang said they are targeted at brides and grooms, parents of young children, pet owners — or anyone else who wants to capture a special moment.
Malden Mayor Gary Christenson bought two figurines of himself and gave them to his mother and sister during the holidays. He said his mother put hers in a glass case.
“As mayor, I don’t see my family as much as I would like, so I presented the gifts as a way for them to never lose touch with me,” Christenson joked. “You go through a lot of gifts around the holiday season but that one left them laughing like I’ve never seen before. My sister was speechless and she’s never, ever at a loss for words.”
Zhang uses 90 entry-level, Canon DSLR cameras, placed strategically in a circle, to take 90 images of a subject. Those photos are stitched together with software to create a 3D image. He then uploads the image to a 3D printing website, such asShapeways or Sculpteo, which prints out the statue and ships it.
Although the business model of using a third-party 3D printing company is not unusual, using sandstone as a material is quite different, said Anthony Vicari, who studies the 3D printing industry for Lux Research, an international company with offices in Boston.
Vicari said he knows of a few companies that make personal figurines using plastic or even paper and glue, but hasn’t heard of anyone using sandstone. A company called Corbel, in Vancouver, uses sandstone to create figurines that look identical to the type 3D Bean makes, but Zhang believes he is the only company in the Boston area doing this. He uses sandstone because the color is applied as the figurine is being built, not painted on later.
Zhang’s subjects have to remain still only for as long as it takes to snap one photo; all 90 cameras fire at once. He said he has a patent pending for a circular cage where cameras can be mounted without fear of them being accidently moved.
Somerville resident Christian Nachtrieb, who owns Brighter Lights Media, did some promotional videos for Zhang and as part of that process had a figurine of his dog made. Harvey is a 67-pound rescue boxer/pit bull mix who is a bit skittish, but his photo session only took about seven or eight minutes, Nachtrieb said.
“The bright lights kind of scared him but any normal, non-rescue dog that wasn’t traumatized shouldn’t have a problem,” he said. He noted that Harvey was recently treated for thyroid cancer and, although recent tests showed the cancer was gone, he wanted the figurine as a keepsake.
“A pet’s lifespan is so much shorter and instead of having just a picture, a figurine is so much better,” Nachtrieb said.
Vicari said more than half of the $2.3 billion 3D market involves industrial uses. The consumer 3D printing market is still in its infancy
“We’ve only started seeing products being made with 3D printing in the past five to 10 years,” Vicari said.
Although some 3D printers sell for only a few hundred dollars, printers that can make something that is actually functional cost several thousand dollars, according to Vicari. Zhang said he doesn’t have his own 3D printer because it would cost him about $80,000.
Zhang tried to raise $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign last fall but he fell about $7,000 short of his goal. According to Kickstarter’s rules, he collected nothing. Instead he used his personal savings and got his parents in China and his fiancée to invest in his business. But first he had to educate them about 3D printing.
“My mother had no idea about 3D printing,” Zhang said. “But once I could make my parents understand what it is I am doing, they really believed this is something that could have a bright future.”
He said his next challenge is to educate consumers. Zhang, who earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Northeastern University in 2012, said his expertise is technical and he’ll probably need a partner — “maybe one of my friends” — who can do the marketing.
Christenson said he believes there is a market for this and he became convinced of it after a few photos of his “Mini-Me” were posted on his Facebook page. He said the comments were extremely positive.
“People were stunned just by the clarity and how lifelike it looks,” he said.