Hi folks, 

As some of you know, I started making clay last year for our niche group (animators). At first, it didn't sell very well, but now I'm having the opposite problem... I can't make it fast enough! Before I can even order the ingredients for the next shipment, the stock is sold through. 

My question is, "is there a non-obvious method for automating the production of clay in a small space on a budget?" A self-packager would be great! I know nothing of machines, but if the guy who recently retired from making clay after selling his company was making it by hand all these years, I can really relate. It's hard work to do all of the manufacturing processes yourself...

I'm getting to the point where I need help and I know I need help, but I don't know who to ask or what kind of help to ask for. Another entirely different issue is getting a patent. Those cost several thousand dollars. It would be nice to have one eventually, but at the moment, we're far from that. If a Kickstarter campaign would do the trick, what kind of rewards would we offer someone who was angel investing in a tiny startup with no capital or retail history or retail track record?

Other projects I've worked on were a gamble and most didn't do well, so I didn't expect this one to either, but now that it is, I'm scrambling and can't seem to move fast enough to do large volume.

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There must be mixing machines, maybe for bakers to mix dough? That would be a kind of small business that doesn't have to be a huge factory to need some machinery. I don't know if it would be suitable, dough might be a lot softer than animating clay. But there would be bakers upgrading to a bigger or later model and selling off the old one from time to time. I would try a few search terms in ebay or craig's lizt I think it is (don't have that here) and see if anything pops up, maybe in a different industry that we wouldn't think of.
I can't see a wrapping machine being available for small scale production.

Actually, alrhough I see the problem, I guess this is a pretty good problem to have. Better than finding no one is interested, it shows you were on the right track. Great to hear that word is getting round and orders are picking up.

Ceramic artists use a machine known as a "Pug mill" or "Pugmill" for mixing clay (or at least that's what they're called in Australia). You can combine different colours/types of clay, off-cuts, batches of different firmness, and so on...and it gets extruded as a consistent sausage about 8cm in diameter. The one I used years ago looked a bit like a large meat-mincer -- a chute on top with a lever/handle to push the clay into the machine, and an electric motor to mix and push the clay out a pipe on the end. A nice feature is that the mixing and compression action removes air-bubbles, which is essential if the clay is to be fired in a kiln.


It sounds like you're talking about the woman who was making Castilene in her kitchen sink and nobody knew that until after she had sold the company to some big clay manufacturer. At the time it was the preferred clay for professional sculptors making action figure prototypes for the big companies like Hasbro and Mattel, and they all started freaking out when suddenly the formula changed and it just wasn't as good as it used to be. But apparently the company listened to them and started doing it the right way - another New Coke horror story. 

What was Aardman using to mix their clay - a bubblegum machine or something? It might be time to hire some fresh-faced kid straight out of high school (or still in) and start teaching them the trade as an assistant. If they're going to be working with heated wax or anything then they'd need to be over 18 and you'd probably need to take out an insurance policy on them. In fact I imagine everything becomes a lot different as soon as you hire somebody because suddenly you're a corporation rather than a hobbyist. 

Let me elaborate, it' not as bad as that made it sound. In restaurants where I used to work they would have to hire over 18 if they were going to be working near the ovens or fryers, but for waiters or bussers or front counter they could hire 16 and up. So if you did hire under 18 you'd be the one doing all the hot wax work and anything dangerous, but the assistant could be packaging and cleaning up and whatever else isn't inherently too dangerous. You'd need to look into the statutes on it though - don't just take my word for it. 

And I don't even pretend to know anything about what I'm about to say - this is strictly conjecture, but possibly if you hired someone under 18 and didn't require them to do anything dangerous you might not need to insure them. But then from what I hear it's getting harder and harder to start a small business and requires immense amounts of permits, licenses and paperwork these days. I wonder at what point it gets considered a business rather than a couple of people earning some spare change on the side? Probably as soon as you 'hire' somebody I would guess. Maybe if they were more of a partner but had a clearly defined role then you could avoid the hassles of turning it into an official business. Though of course, if it does take off, you'll probably want to make it a business.

There are some good ideas here! The wax is hot and can burn you, but I've been able to refine the process so much with mechanical assists (long-handled tools, etc) that I very rarely get burned and it's not bad when it happens. I don't wear gloves and just keep my hands really clean when I'm working which is a far cry from working with some types of clay whose fillers can actually chemically burn the skin (hydrated lime, for example, which is caustic). My filler is made of vegetable matter, so it's non-toxic. The waxes are all non-toxic as well, and highly refined.

The biggest problem is probably not making large amounts of clay, but packaging them. Pre-cut laser printed labels (as in stickers) would help a lot- cutting out all the details for each package is very time-consuming. Printing stickers is cost-prohibitive for me at this point.

A small business loan is the ultimate goal, because that would go to getting a patent, which would unlock the next level, whether that would be growing the business or selling the formula to a bigger company. Someone tried to scare me with knowledge of a device that can test the levels of different ingredients. But I mix them at such a high temperature that my former teacher said it was impossible to guess the individual melting points. He has had a lot of experience with this sort of thing, having started and owned one of the most successful commercial animation studios in the world for 27 years. He said he always tried to chemically test the different brands of clay in an attempt to reverse-engineer them, but it was like trying to peer through mud as far as the findings that could be derived from that method. 

But yeah, a patent would at least secure the ability to hire out without losing control of the product and its trade secrets. I don't think there is much I'll be able to do as far as expanding until I get a patent. I do have an assistant in mind, though... Someone I worked with for several years. She would need a living wage, though, and this doesn't even pay enough for me to quit my day job (which, as you would expect with any catch-22, I need to free up that time to get things going). If I become a partner, I would want a controlling share. According to someone who used to do the hiring for a studio, 50-50 does not work. In fact, that company was lost because of who had the controlling share (stating facts, not politics).
Wish I had paid more attention in DECA marketing back in high school...

At any rate, here's a little test I shot with the clay last night: 
As you can see, the issue of shiniess has resolved. That had a lot to do with how well the filler was mixed in, but could also be due to a change in the wax supplier when the brand of wax I was using became hard to find.

The test is about determining the flexibility of the clay under animation lights. This was a 3-point light setup with two halogens a couple of feet to either side and an LED lamp shining up from underneath. The aimation is nothing to write home about, but it's fluid (30 FPS) and everything flexed without cracking with a comfortable room temperature of about 75 degrees, so that's good. The process of animating was quite enjoyable because I was not constantly cleaning greasy sludge off my hands. This clay does get dirty quickly like any other clay, however, so it's still important to keep your hands clean.

Edit: The clay is slightly glossy because I smoothed it with olive oil. The level of gloss by default can be seen in the light orange color.

I'm so used to thinking about how to use things for animation that were made for completely different purposes, I didn't even think of actual clay mixing machines!  

But I can see how the packaging is time consuming.  Would it really cost much to have a single generic label printed,  maybe with the clay colour indicated by ticking the appropriate colour in a list of all the colours, and of course seeing the actual clay through the cellophane/clear plastic.

Perhaps you could contract out the wrapping part?  Maybe to a sheltered workshop even.  That avoids you being an employer, with all the complications like insurance and superannuation and sick leave and union reps, the contractors have all that in place for their employees.

I like the color tick box idea, Nick. Not sure how to integrate all of the graphics on a single wrapper though. Not even sure how to print on clear paper that doesn't have a sticky back. But if it's as clear as the stretch wrap I'm using, I could figure out some kind of "unfolded" design and print one graphic per page. That might cost more than printing on label paper... Not sure. I'll call about it. At the moment it's in three pieces: front, back, and side panel. In the future the other side might have a bar code or other information. 

A clay mixing machine can be as simple as a drill with a paint mixing bit. That's what I've been using and it works a treat. The main thing is that the mixture must have a heating element underneath the container it's in. There are thermoplastic solids and will not mix together at room temperature. At least, not in my experience... Maybe an industrial blender. Melting the wax is another part of the process that takes the bulk of the time. About a half hour to do a decent sized batch.

As far as repurposing... I do that a lot. All kinds of things that work the same way as something that would cost more because it was made for that specific task. That's a money saver.

Don Carlson said:

I like the color tick box idea, Nick. Not sure how to integrate all of the graphics on a single wrapper though. Not even sure how to print on clear paper that doesn't have a sticky back.

It could be a sticky-back paper label stuck onto a cellophane wrapper. 

That's how it is now. :)

Strider said:

Don Carlson said:

I like the color tick box idea, Nick. Not sure how to integrate all of the graphics on a single wrapper though. Not even sure how to print on clear paper that doesn't have a sticky back.

It could be a sticky-back paper label stuck onto a cellophane wrapper. 

I meant a pre-printed, pre-cut paper label - in case you can't get it done on clear plastic or it's too expensive. Is your avatar your current label? It looks like the letters are cut out to show the clay through (or are the colors just printed on?) - that's a nice touch but I think it would be cost prohibitive to get anything like that made up in bulk, or take forever to do them all by hand that way. You might want to go with a simpler label now that you need to ramp up production. (Or just have the colors printed on - though that also would be costly)

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