Decorating Toys: Current Methods and Future Prospects
Manufacturing Technical Writer
In her previous position at a major toy manufacturer in Japan, she was in charge of production engineering and quality control.
Working mainly in China and Japan, she was responsible for developing and managing the production of plastic toys, miscellaneous goods, and play equipment, as well as testing and evaluating safety standards.
She has experience in starting up a new cell production line in a Chinese factory and has obtained CPE and CPE-ME (Production Engineer Management) certifications.
She now works as a technical writer focusing on the manufacturing industry, writing explanatory pages and columns for corporate websites and other web media.
One of the most attractive features of today’s toys is the variety of designs.
Not only the various colors, patterns, and characters, but also decorations such as glitter and metallic are very important elements for making toys attractive to potential buyers. Depending on the character, it may take many rounds of prototyping and supervision to reproduce the desired colors, and the quality of the finishing directly affects the reputation of the product and the brand. For developers and manufacturers, decorating toys is not an easy task.
1. Spray Painting
There are a variety of decoration methods available for toys, but the most common is spray painting. Paint is applied to a part either entirely or partially depending on the design.
Occasionally automated spray-painting machinery is used, but it is more common to spray by hand using a spray gun. Even when the painting is done by machine, the work of arranging the parts on the jig is done manually. Most decorated toys are not produced in large quantities at a time. Hence, most of the painting process is done by hand.
In case of partially spray-painting a part, you must apply mask to the area where you do not want it painted.
The parts are fitted into a mask jig with holes in the areas to be painted, and then painted with a sprayer. If the mask jig is not accurate, the toy cannot be painted attractively. The jigs are soon covered with ink, so they must be cleaned at the right time. This requires not only the skill of the operator but also proper management.
Spray painting is currently the basic method of toy decoration, but the cost is rising every year. In Japan, it has risen to the point that it is almost unusable for toys, and the same is true overseas, where the cost is rising year by year.
In addition, since only one color can be used at a time, the process and cost increases with each additional color. Furthermore, the high environmental impact and the need for special equipment make it difficult for a new business to enter the market. Whether in Japan or overseas, it is not easy to find a factory that can meet the cost and quality requirements for toy manufacturing.
Spray painting can be done in an infinite number of color combinations for a beautiful finish, but to paint cleanly and without overflow, a groove called a parting line must be included, which must be taken into consideration from the design stage.
Pad (tampo) printing is often used in conjunction with spray painting.
This is a method of printing by placing ink on a metal plate, or tampo plate, etched in the shape of the design to be printed, then applying it to a silicon pad and pressing it against the part like a stamp. This method is suitable for coloring detailed graphics such as eyes on figures.
Other printing methods include silk screen, water transfer, and hot stamping. Although there are a variety of printing methods, they all have their advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to choose the appropriate method.
Plating is also a commonly used decoration method in toy manufacturing. There are various types of plating, such as galvanic plating and electroplating, but the most commonly used for toys is vacuum deposition. A variety of metallic colors can be reproduced by painting clear colors on top of the vapor deposition. In recent years, high-quality toys for adults have been released, and plating, which is difficult for children’s toys in terms of price and safety, is sometimes used for the purpose of adding value.
4. Digital Printing: the New Frontier
In recent years, inkjet printing using UV curable inks has become a popular method of decoration. This is inkjet printing directly on plastic, similar to printing on paper, which is then cured by UV light.
The advantages of inkjet printing include the ability to print multiple colors in a single process with perfect registration, that the operator does not need any special skills, and that no special equipment or large space is required once the machine is installed. Moreover, it is suitable for small-lot production, such as prototyping, and can respond immediately to changes in design, making it ideal for toys, which tend to be produced in smaller lots and with more variety.
The disadvantage of this method is that since it uses dots for printing, it is difficult to reproduce smooth painted colors, and the result can be blurred when printing on curved surfaces. Also, at present, the printed surface is relatively matte, and the texture may be inferior to that of painting. However, this is a field where new technologies are being developed day after day, so these disadvantages will likely to be solved eventually.
Flatbed inkjet printers are capable of printing multiple toys and parts at once. Since printing on as many units as possible in a single printing session increases the overall efficiency, inkjet printers are often used for fine printing on many small parts rather than printing on large parts or large areas. It is also sometimes used in conjunction with spray painting.
Toy decoration is now a world where high quality is the norm. Mistakes in painting and printing are directly related to product reputation and complaints. At the customer service center, we receive inquiries every day such as for minor misaligned painting that can't be called defects, and we feel that the expectation level of consumers is rising. Developers and manufacturers are scratching their heads, wondering to what extent they should and can respond. To meet customer expectations, it is important to choose appropriate decoration methods, and to learn about and incorporate new technologies.