There are a lot of Lego minifigures out there. Too many to count, really, since they've been around for over 40 years, though that hasn't stopped demand for minifigures that Lego hasn't produced. There are plenty of people offering 'custom' figures 'compatible with popular brands'. In other words: knock offs, designed to look like Lego but not actually made by the company themselves. But what if Lego let people create their own minfigs? It's possible, but currently only in one place - the Berlin Lego store.
The Minfigure Factory, as it's called, opened up in August of this year, and for a small price (€12, about £10.70) you can create your own personalised minifigure. I just happened to be in Berlin for IFA last month and found myself at a briefing not too far from Berlin's Lego Store. Naturally I went for a look at this process for myself, and definitely not because I wanted to browse the shelves and see if there was anything I wanted and could afford/fit in my paltry luggage allowance. As it turned out, I ended up walking out with a Giz UK-brand Lego minifig of my own creation.
The Minifigure Factory isn't new, and Lego has trialled the machines in other Lego stores around Europe, including Copenhagen and London (somehow we missed that). Those were only around for a few days at a time, though, and while it's still not clear if the Berlin Minifigure Factory is a trial or not the fact that it was still there nearly three weeks after launch suggests it's a more long-term installation. But the real question is, what is it actually like to use?
The main thing to note is that the custom minifigure is not exactly cheap. It was €12 in Berlin, and the London trial was charging £11 a pop, which got you a full minifigure, a custom 1x3 brick, a hairpiece/hat, and an accessory. It's all inside a little display box, which you needed to get the whole process working. There's an NFC card in the back of the box, and placing that on the reader at one of the self-serve machines lets you design and order your figure.
Everything needs to be done at a machine, so unfortunately you can't, for instance, put together an order on your phone and send it to the Lego store to be printed ahead of time so you don't need to stand around waiting. And there is quite a bit of waiting because it's a long process printing these things from scratch. There were some other flaws as well, but I'll get to that.
The machine takes you through all the motions, asking for your name (added to the brick), and having you choose a design for the front and back part of the minifigure's torso. You can either choose from a number of preloaded designs, or you can create one yourself using a combination of letters, images, and your own scrawling. Sadly the machine itself uses a pretty basic touchscreen similar to those you might find on a supermarket self-checkout. In other words, it's not as high quality as a smartphone or tablet, and nowhere near as responsive.
So if you want to create a custom design you'll need to be pretty skilled, have a lot of patience, and hope there aren't people queuing up getting annoyed that you won't let them have their turn. That's another limitation of the kiosk-machine system, since letting people do this from some sort of phone or web app would be a little more efficient all round. I can understand Lego not letting people load in pre-made designs, because that would no doubt end up as a copyright nightmare, but having a more responsive interface would do wonders for people who want to skip the pre-loaded design in favour of one they drew themselves. Kids especially.
I have to stay on brand somehow
Once the design is finalised it's sent off to the printer, and you have a fairly long wait ahead of you before you can get your hands on the custom parts. Some of this time can be used to pick out the other minifigure pieces, which include a single headpiece, a face, legs, and one accessory. All those are kept in a giant bin of pieces, almost identical to the build-your-own-minifigure bays you find in most Lego stores. But until you get the torso, there's not a whole lot you can do but wait.
Watching the printing process is one option, but the machine itself is essentially a big version of paper printer, laying the design onto the Lego pieces, and it gets boring after a while. If you ever get a chance to do this, do your browsing after the bits have started printing.
Sadly I don't know what kind of printer it is, but I'm sure someone can make a few guesses in the comments. Once the printing was done the pieces then need to be put into a special compartment to dry off, and make sure the ink bonded to the pieces properly, so I'm guessing it's some sort of special plastic-like ink Lego has.
But once that final bit is done, all you have to do it put your minifig together and box it up. Nice and easy, especially since you already paid for it.
Overall the Minifigure Factory is a nice idea, though it comes across as a bit of a gimmick given the limitations on designing your own pieces. I'm guessing Lego doesn't want people printing off designs that they would otherwise have to buy from Lego, nor do they want them creating stuff that may land them in legal trouble. Still, there are better ways to let people design the figures, especially if they're going freehand, and minimise the wait time. All it needs is the same interface bundled into an app, and some way for the machine to take remote orders.
You could even get people to pay in advance via the Lego website, and use a special code to confirm purchase before it gets printed. That way it also lets kids mess around with the design process without accidentally ordering five million figures on their parent's credit card.
Minifigure Factory minifigs are €12 or £11, and who knows if they'll ever make their way back to Lego stores in this country as a permanent thing. Hopefully they will, with some much-needed improvements.