Accurate Miniatures: A behind the scenes look
Accurate Miniatures has gained a reputation for producing well engineered, high quality, accurate model kits. (Thus the name!) Many of their kits, such as the Il-2 Stormovik, TBF Avenger, SBD Dauntless and others are considered by many to be the finest kits of those aircraft ever produced. And they’ve shown a willingness to tackle kits not often produced by other manufacturers, such as their F3F series of biplanes, and the SB2U Vindicator. More recently, they’ve added pylon racing aircraft, pre-painted 1/100th scale aircraft, and even brought back some “oldies” in the form of nostalgic Monogram re-issues from the late 60’s.
And while so many of the high quality, mass production manufacturers are from the Europe or Asia, I’m proud to say Accurate Miniatures is headquartered right here in my home state, North Carolina, USA. Accurate Miniatures president, Linda Habovick, graciously agreed to “sit down” with me (via email) for an interview. I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the process that happens before Accurate Miniatures model kits appear on the shelves of your local hobby shop.
Mrs. Habovick was kind enough to agree to answer my many, many questions (trust me- it was a long list). In fact, she said “We are very excited about your interest in running an article about how model kits are developed. We are sure that it will be very interesting for modelers to know the complete process.” To get started, she points out that the following process is used by Accurate Miniatures, and that each “modeling company’s approach could vary somewhat”.
With the introductions done, let’s find out where the Accurate Miniatures kit on your shelf, workbench or in your stash came from!
First, how is a subject picked? I’ve always wonder how the market is judged. Does the lack or presence of similar kits have great effect?
The initial step is to select a subject with a great deal of reference materials and/or markings. Popular subjects are most often considered, as less known or eccentric planes, cars, etc., do not have the mass- market appeal needed to offset the cost of making the kit. Another important factor is to choose a subject that has not been done before, or one that can be drastically improved upon. It does not make sense to compete with kits that are already well done and available on the market.
How much is based on consumer feedback?
We are fortunate to have many modelers contact us with popular kit ideas and we do take into consideration the details and markings that the consumers suggest to us. We strive to make a highly detailed kit with the extras that modelers have told us that they like (photo etch, more than one set of markings per kit, etc.). We also have several employees that have been modeling since childhood. These factors are very helpful in our selection process.
Once a subject is picked, what is the next step to take?
After we have selected a subject, we send our design artist into the field to measure the actual thing. Chief Designer Bob Johnson travels to museums all over the country to crawl all over aircraft and cars and measure them. He also takes a myriad of photos that we can use to make sure that every detail of the kit is as close to the real thing as possible. He can then bring those measurements and pictures back to our offices and reduce them down to the scale that we wish to do our model in.
How is the breakdown of parts decided? For instance, I’ve built Accurate Miniature’s P-51A, and I really enjoyed the detail in the cockpit. How is the determination made that it should be broken into 6 parts versus 10 parts? (Or whatever the number was…)
When determining how to plan the kit the object is to have the least number of parts, yet still give as much detail to the model as possible. The more parts, the more cost there is to the kit. Also, with more parts, there are more chances for mis-aligned panel lines and/or poor fit. Therefore, the designer chooses to break the parts down to the least number that will still allow for an accurate fit and fine detail.
Once the parts breakdown is determined, how are sprues planned?
Sprues are usually broken down by area in which they belong in the model. For example: fuselage halves on one sprue, cockpit parts on another, etc. However, many sections have to be combined because the goal is to limit the number of trees in order to reduce the cost of the kit.
Where does the production decals fall into the process?
Once the sprue lay outs are decided, decal designs may be sent off to the printers even before designs are sent to the mold maker (depending on the subject) or may be held to be printed after the 1st set of test shots are complete.
I guess at some point it comes time to mold some plastic into the shape of the kit. How is that done?
Once the drawings for the model are complete, they are sent to a mold maker. They create a set of “test shots”. This helps the designer to see how all the parts are fitting and if there are any molding flaws due to design error.
How many iterations does that take? How close to the final product is it at that point?
Depending on the complexity of the kit, there may be 2 or 3 “test shots” made before the actual mass pressing of the plastic parts. At the point of the second test shot, the kit parts are usually around 2 months from being received at the company warehouse. This is also about the time that the instruction booklets begin to be designed. Usually all errors are corrected at this point and the Art Director, Tom Myers and designer (Bob) can begin to write and illustrate a correctly detailed set of instructions. Box art is completed around this time as well and the printers begin printing boxes for the kits. Our printer is located in N.C., which speeds up delivery to us.
The plastic parts for our kits take much longer to arrive (approximately 4 to 6 weeks), as our mold makers are located in Korea. Therefore, when the plastic parts are ready, they are shipped via 53 ft. container to Charleston, S.C. and go through customs. Then the boxes are trucked to our warehouse in Concord, N.C.
Many of your kits contain resin and photo etch parts. When do those get added?
If photo etch and resin are required for the kit, the completed model is sent to the Czech Republic. It takes approximately one month for the photo etch/resin parts to be completed and shipped to the U.S.A.
With so many things happening around the world, where does it all come together in the box we see on local hobby shop shelves?
The packaging of our kits is all done in our warehouse in Concord, N.C. via an assembly line process. Kits are stored broken down in their component parts (to conserve on warehouse space) until an order is actually received. Then the kits are assembled and shrink wrapped and shipped out via UPS or DHL to the distributor.
This whole process (from the actual measuring of the aircraft or car, to putting the kit on the hobby store shelf) takes approximately 8 months to 1 year. Much depends on the complexity of the kit and the schedules that the molders, printers, etc. have. Obviously, one of the most time consuming parts of the project are the detailed drawings that must be drawn to scale. Many companies will use software to speed up this process, however, our designer still does all of our drawings by hand. We find that this allows for more detail and accuracy to go into our kits. And, naturally, the historical research and color schemes often take several months to complete as well.
Modelers often discuss kit prices. With all of the labor you’ve described being involved, the process can’t be cheap.
Unfortunately, the whole process is very cost intensive. That is why the average cost of a model kit is $30.00 or higher. The mold for a new release runs between $150,000 to $200,000. We use a more expensive type of mold, made of copper barilium, in order to enhance the details and improve the quality and fit of our part.
How many kits are usually produced in a new release?
Our average run of kits for a new release is around 5,000. Some companies will choose to use a less expensive mold made of aluminum. This type of mold has a life expectancy of about 10,000 kits, and so it is usually used for kits that their company only plans to release for a short time. This type of mold also reduces the amount of detail that can go into the plastic parts.
I did some quick math- 5000 kits at $30 each only comes to $150,000. I would guess you’d have to do more than one run to really make up your costs?
The best thing about the copper barilium mold is that it allows us to run plastic parts as many times as we wish, which allows for re-releases many years later. This is why new kit versions of already existing molds are often offered between new releases. This helps the modeling companies get the revenue they need in order to produce an all- new mold.
By the time decals, boxes, instructions, photo etch, resin, shipping fees from Korea, customs fees, trucking fees, shrink wrap, labor and operating costs are all calculated, the production of a new kit is expensive indeed.
One thing I always enjoy is browsing through my local hobby shop and looking at the box art. Accurate Miniatures has some great box art. Where does that come from, and how important is it?
Box art is the other largest expense. The average painting costs anywhere from $800 to $3,000, depending on the artist and the scene to be painted. The box art is extremely important, as the picture on the box is often what “sells the kit”.
Once a kit is ready to be released, what are some ways that you let the modeling world know?
In order to announce our upcoming releases to the modeling public, we occasionally advertise in model magazines. This is especially true if it is a completely new mold. We also send kit samples to internet modeling websites so that they may publish build ups and reviews. We attend trade shows and the IPMS Nationals as much as we can in order to put information into the hands of the distributors as well as the consumers. And, upon request, we donate raffle prize kits to modeling clubs around the world.
Who builds the kits that are pictured on the box bottom? I really appreciate being able to see what the kit can look like once it’s completed. Many manufacturers no longer show you that.
The models that you see featured on the bottom of our boxes have been built by several local modeling clubs. The most recent builds have been done by the Winston-Salem IPMS group and they have done a fine job.
Do the folks who work at Accurate Miniatures build models daily?
Do we build the kits as part of our job? Only to determine the fit of test shots. The final build- ups and paint jobs are done by modeling groups. Naturally, we have several avid modelers at our company, but there are many other matters to attend to on a daily basis. We have to give away the most fun part- building the kit!
Looking into the “modeling crystal ball” so to speak, what interesting trends do you see on the horizon?
As far as interesting trends occurring in the hobby industry….. Kits are becoming more detailed and accurate. The research is more in depth as well. Truly the “bang for your buck” is much greater now than in past years. You will also see many of the modeling companies cooperating in re-releasing each others kits from prior years. New versions of the kit can be offered with new details, parts and markings. We also share research and valuable information amongst each other. Plastic modeling is a somewhat small industry, and helping each other benefits both the companies and the consumers.
I am really grateful for you taking the time to give modelers such an interesting insight into how model kits end up on our workbenches. Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
In closing, we at Accurate Miniatures would like to express our appreciation to the modelers. Their passion for this hobby is what keeps us going. Input is always welcome. Please feel free to contact us directly at email@example.com. We look forward to bringing you some exciting kits in the future.