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Friday, July 07, 2017

The Road to Shapeways

Steve Cole writes:
Every time we do a Captain's Log, we have to go through a decision cycle for several things so that we know what to announce. When we did Captain's Log #52, there was a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion of the Starline 2500 line and what to do with it.
The 2500s (1/3125-scale) had more than their share of problems from the very start. Tests with resin had been very good, but actual production of resin ships failed to work so Mongoose had to shift to metal. That got a lot of people upset. Then a contractor working for Mongoose could only meet production goals by shipping everything they made, including ships that customers considered defective. Those had to be replaced, costing money and upsetting customers. Even after ADB, Inc. took over the 2500s and imposed our high standards of quality control, too many players had already rejected the line, saying they did not trust anyone to do the ships right, or on time, or as advertised. It didn't help that once we saw what was going on we found that the ships were too expensive to make and the only way to keep them on the market at all was as mail-order-only products. This made things difficult for overseas customers who bought a far higher percentage of the 2500s compared to the 2400s.
ADB, Inc. released many new 2500s, but for all of the above reasons they didn't sell very well and actually lost money. Players were also complaining that the Klingon, Kzinti, and Romulan dreadnoughts had never been released in metal. (We tried, they could not be done economically and some of them could not be physically done at all. Considering it would cost over $500 to put each dreadnought into production and dreadnought sales were usually 1/5 of cruiser sales, this was not practical.)
We were on the verge of discontinuing the 2500s and doing the CGIs over as 2450s (in 1/3788 scale) when we decided to at least do some research on Shapeways as a way to release enough 2500s to keep the line alive. Part of our research was to ask an expert who had, two years earlier, convinced us not to do Shapeways because quality miniatures with our details (specifically the phaser mounts) could not be done at sub-astronomical prices. He noted that technology was improving and costs coming down and that Shapeways had become a viable option.
So after consulting with Mongoose we announced on 10 March that we¹d open a store on Shapeways and have Mongoose release the missing dreadnoughts there. We expected this to happen in 10-15 days; it actually took 99 days.
While the project was starting, Will McCammon asked if he could do a couple of 2500 (1/3125th) ships that were never going to be available in metal anyway (the Klingon F5S and Romulan SkyHawk-L). We consulted with Mongoose and they agreed. About the time those ships were finished, Steve Cole had a bright idea and asked Will to do a "large freighter with skids and ducktail" any time he had the chance. Will said that was so easy that he did it at once and it became a part of the original release plan.
When we were within days of opening the store we ordered samples (so we¹d have photographs) and found that it would take three weeks to get them instead of three days. So the store opening was delayed 18 days. During that time, Matthew Lawson (who does a lot of cover art for us) said that his ships (and he had dozens of them) could be added to the store if we wanted them. We agreed, and the evolution of thought started to change the focus of the Shapeways store in directions we never considered.
Meanwhile Mongoose had some problems. Their sculptor (the beautiful and talented Sandrine Thirache) had a death in her family which took her out of the office for three weeks, delaying the opening of the store. When she got back, she had to catch up on other work, which delayed us two more weeks. Meanwhile Jean had done a survey of the market and determined that if we didn¹t have the Federation CA and Klingon D7 in the store (in both scales) on the first day, we¹d never be taken seriously. So we asked Sandrine to convert her existing CGIs for this purpose. After weeks of trying to get those two ships (and the rest of the missing dreadnoughts) to work, Sandrine officially gave up. Her CGIs were not originally done to Shapeways standards and could not be made to match them (other than the relatively simple Vulture). She would have to start over, and Mongoose said it was doubtful if she could be spared to start over on every ship in the 2500 range. They bowed out of the project in late May. We then asked Will McCammon and Matthew Lawson about doing the Federation CA and Klingon D7. Will McCammon rose to the task and did them in record time (which still took two weeks). Meanwhile, Matthew Lawson did some other ships for us including the DemonHawk. He already had Frax and Seltorians ready and these were also prepared for release.
On 6 June, Steve Cole noticed a Shapeways ship (the WYN dreadnought "Nancy") that Steve Zamboni had done for his own amusement, knowing he could not sell it. Steve Cole was so blown away that he asked Steve Zamboni to join the sculpting team. Steve Zamboni said that while the Nancy would take some rework for series production, he had two dozen freighters ready for us to use immediately. So we added three of his freighters to the initial release package. Before the store had opened, we had seen nice work by two other sculptors and began to talk with them about their joining the team.
Somewhere along the line all of the confusion by the sculptors over the Starline 2400, 2425, 2450, 2500, and 2501 lines convinced us to rebrand everything (for Shapeways only) as 1/3125-scale, 1/3788-scale, and Omni-scale.
When Will McCammon told us that the Federation CA and Klingon D7 would be ready by 17 June, Jean and Steve Cole penciled in a store opening for 19 June. Every time they mentioned this in public they added the caveat that it probably would be a bit later as there were doubtless issues we didn¹t even know about yet to be surmounted. Steve Cole named Will McCammon "Chief Engineer" for the project and asked him to verify the size and scale of every other sculptor's ships. This made his life miserable as he had to finish his ships while checking everyone else¹s but he rose to the challenge.
Leanna Cole insisted that the store not be opened until the sculptors were under contract. This happened, taking a few days longer than it should have due to email problems.
Finally, on June 20th, all was ready. The ships were uploaded into our private account, all of the contracts were signed, all of the pricing data established, the sales description text had been proofread, and everyone had enjoyed a nourishing lunch. Jean, Leanna, and Steve Cole had cleared their schedules for the day so that whatever was needed could be done. Jean then officially opened the store.
And ran into a brick wall.
Moving each ship into the public "for sale" area was taking over 30 minutes per ship (we had allowed five) because there was so much data to enter. When you start at 1pm and have 21 ships to do and each of them takes a half-hour, well, you do the math. Things got better, and things got worse. Jean got faster, cutting down the upload time from 30 minutes to 25 then 20 and finally doing the last ship in about 15 minutes. (She also learned that all of that work could have been done before opening the store, so in future we'll have all of the ships ready to go on release day and need just a few seconds per ship to move them to the "for sale" area.) However, we found that two of the ships had problems, so they came down off sale, then went back up when we figured out they didn't have problems, then one of them had to be re-uploaded (which takes at least an hour) because we had the wrong file. Steve Cole bought Jean dinner in exchange for an agreement to work to 10pm and get all 21 ships uploaded and the official launch was complete. We had five orders by 10:15pm, and more the next morning.
But the launch was not over. When orders began to arrive, one of the ships failed to print despite having passed the Shapeways pre-checks. Fortunately, the sculptor recognized the error message (which was actually reporting the wrong error but he had seen it before) and he fixed it within a few hours.

Federation Heavy Cruiser