From The Straits Times Archives

Singaporeans create mini replicas of themselves with 3-D printing and other techniques

Singaporeans are buying into clay, plastic or resin replicas of themselves as unique keepsakes or as gifts

Fancy a mini-me?

At least five companies have popped up here that allow people to create miniature replicas of themselves in two ways: in handsculpted clay; or in 3-D printed variations of plaster, plastic and resin.

While clay figurines have been available for at least the past decade, their popularity has spiked in the last three years, with some stall owners reporting a jump of up to 30 per cent in business.

The newer plaster-and-resin figurines, made via 3-D printing, made its debut here last year and are also drawing fans for their life-like renderings.

The newest player on the block is Uu pop-up studio, a collaboration between Mikanbako, a Japanese 3-D imaging studio, home-grown advertising firm Kinetic and shopping mall Scotts Square. The studio, which started last weekend at the mall and runs till next Sunday, allows customers to create replicas of themselves after a 30-minute full-body scan.

Companies that produce clay figurines base them on the pictures customers provide. Their 3-D printing rivals, however, make use of hand-held, full body scanners to digitally image a person.

Figurines range in height from 8cm to 25cm. They can cost from $100 to $1,500.

And while clay figurines tend to be more like caricatures because they are based on the artist's impression of a picture, 3-D printed figurines are more true to life. If dropped, clay figurines may be dented, while plaster or resin replicas might chip.

Many people who make replicas of themselves or loved ones do so as gifts. One such customer is Mr Farouk Abdul Rahim, 31, who paid about $600 for miniature clay figurines of himself and his girlfriend in April through Unusually, which specialises in polymer clay figurines. Polymer clay is a softer kind of modelling clay that can withstand high temperatures used in baking.

"My girlfriend was going to study abroad in Yemen and I wanted to give her something she could take with her," says Mr Farouk, a driver.

He sent pictures of himself and his girlfriend, including views of their faces from the front and both sides, to Mr Adam Koh, 38, owner of Unusually. The 15cm tall figurines took three weeks to complete.

Mr Farouk says he made the figurines special by posing in a T-shirt that his girlfriend especially hated to remind her of his sense of humour.

"It would seem a little egotistical to make one of just myself. Making a set of figurines of the two of us is sort of like immortalising our love in clay," he says.

Civil servant Ong Ai Chuan, too, views the figurines as a way to mark milestones.

The 39-year-old has 11 sets of clay figurines of himself and his wife. Their five-year-old daughter has made an appearance in the last five sets.

He declines to reveal how much he has paid, but says he began collecting the replicas in 2009 as he wanted something unusual to mark his journey with his wife.

"We have many photographs, and caricatures need to be framed and take up a lot of space. So when I found out about these clay figurines, I ordered one of us for every year since we got married," says Mr Ong.

The replicas have a different theme every year, in line with the family's special memories that year. For example, their figurine from 2006 is golf-themed, to mark a vacation the couple took that year in New Zealand, where they picked up the sport. The figurines last year feature their daughter, Yan Qi, on a tricycle, as that was the year she learnt to ride one.

Friends and visitors to their house also love looking at the figurines and identifying the one that bears the most resemblance to them, says Mr Ong.

Customers such as Mr Ong who want unique keepsakes are fuelling the demand for personalised clay figurines.

Mr Lau Fook Leong, owner of Clay Art Touch, which has a store in Alexandra Retail Centre, says he has seen a 5 to 8 per cent increase in sales every year over the past four years.

"We have also received online orders from around the world. We ship frequently to Dubai, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States," adds Mr Lau, 60.

While clay figurines are sculpted or made by hand using different coloured clay, the latest mini replicas make use of sophisticated 3-D printing technology.

Costs of clay figurines usually start from about $100, but those made by 3-D printing cost at least $250, with the latest replicas created by the Uu pop-up studio costing between $800 and $1,500.

Despite the hefty price tag, however, more than half of the 300 slots at the pop-up studio have been taken up, says Kinetic's co-founder, Ms Carolyn Teo, 40.

The studio's technology is among the most advanced - the process of creating each figurine takes about four months and begins with a half-hour full body scan.

Ms Teo sees these figurines as "the future of photographs".

"Like pictures, they help you capture a moment in time but in a three-dimensional form," she says.

She plans to chronicle the major milestones of her two daughters, aged 11 and four, with 3-D figurines every few years.

Two home-grown firms that specialise in 3-D printing also offer customers the chance to make little replicas of themselves.

3D Matters, a firm started in April last year, began making 3-D figurines last November, says one of its directors, Ms Hayden Tay, 26.

The firm's core business still caters to corporate clients - creating models for architecture, product design and advertising. But creating figurines for individual customers now make up about 20 per cent of the business, says Mr Mark Lim, 27, the company's other director.

Its figurines may not be as detailed as those of Uu pop-up studio, but they cost less - a 12cm figurine costs $350 while a 15cm one goes for $450.

Pop-up studio Uu has also piqued the interest of consumers and helped boost the business of its competitors. Mr Lim of 3D Matters says: "We used to get one or two inquiries about these figurines a week. Since Uu opened, we have been receiving about four or five inquiries a day."

Another local firm, Tinkr, also offers 3-D printing of mini figurines at a lower price. Ms Lee Xiaohui, 27, one of the firm's founders, says the company began producing the figurines in ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic, the same material Lego is made of, in July. A 15cm figurine costs $250.

To keep costs down, Ms Lee says the firm uses a mobile scanner and a printer that is not as high-grade as Uu's. The printer also prints in only one colour, and the figurine is then painted by local artists, she adds.

To some, however, paying more for a more life-like replica is worth it.

Photographer John Nursalim, 41, who visited the Uu pop-up studio with his wife to make a replica of themselves posing in hiking gear, says: "Hiking is our common interest and I thought this was a nice way to document it.

"We're capturing this moment to last a lifetime, and in that way, it becomes like a souvenir of yourself and your loved ones. To me, that justifies the price."

jennanid@sph.com.sg