How Marvel is using 3D printers from providers like Formlabs to 'invent the impossible' while also saving time and money on its superheroic movie productions

  • Marvel Entertainment prop master Russell Bobbitt first used 3D printing over a decade ago, when he was working on the 2009 "Star Trek" movie.
  • Now, he taps the technology to build unique props like Thor's hammer and Captain America's shield. 
  • It's another signal of the increasing maturity of 3D printing, a tech that now has uses cases spanning manufacturing, healthcare, and construction, among other sectors. 
  • "Those early machines were not in reach financially for people," said Bobbitt. Now, "it's leaps and bounds above what we saw before." 
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Marvel Entertainment prop master Russell Bobbitt first used 3D printing when he was working on director JJ Abrams' 2009 "Star Trek" reboot.

Abrams told Bobbitt he needed a futuristic-looking police gun, and he needed it the next day — a task Bobbitt thought was impossible.

"There isn't a store for that," he recounted to Business Insider. "I can't just go buy that. And it takes time, and you're asking for this for tomorrow."

So Abrams had Bobbitt work with one of the assistants on the film who had what was novel technology at the time: a 3D printer. The next day, Abrams and Bobbitt had their ersatz weapon in hand. 

Now, at Marvel, he's the man in charge of making sure that cinematic superheroes like the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy have all the gear they need to save the day — "anything the actor touches," as he describes it, from Captain America's iconic shield to Thor's mighty warhammer Mjölnir. 

In the course of his duties, Bobbitt is often called upon once again to design and build something that doesn't exist, and in a hurry. "If design and manufacturing are involved, they call me to invent the impossible. To invent the items that you can't imagine," he said.  

To make it happen, Bobbitt and his team now regularly rely on 3D printing, with much of its business going to Formlabs, a startup valued at $1 billion. Beyond Marvel, Formlabs counts Tesla, Google, and Gillette as clients.

To Bobbitt, Formlabs is a sign of things to come, as 3D printing looks to upend the traditional manufacturing process: While 3D printing existed as far back as that "Star Trek" movie, it wasn't until recently that the technology was available at a "price point that is accessible to the consumer." He's enough of a fan that one of Formlabs' printers can be seen as a prop in Hank Pym's workshop in "Ant Man."

"Great design, great technology, and it's within reach. Whereas those early machines were not in reach financially for people," said Bobbitt. 

3D printing is having a moment

Marvel's embrace of 3D printing is a  reflection of the maturity of the field, with applications now spanning sectors including automotive, healthcare, and construction. Manufacturers, for example, can now more easily prototype designs before making more significant investments in final products.

And because the designs for 3D-printed items can be stored and sent anywhere digitally, it makes it easier to collaborate globally — a key benefit during the coronavirus pandemic. 

A key reason for the surge is advancement in the technology itself, too, with 3D printers becoming smaller, cheaper, faster, and more reliable, all while producing better quality prints.

The industry is advancing "leaps and bounds above what we saw before in that the footprint is growing — and getting bigger and faster," said Bobbitt. 

It's also just one of the many types of advanced applications that movie studios and enterprise tech firms are now tapping for digital effects and other key aspects of production. 

Building the Mandarin's '10 Rings of Power'

Before 3D printing, building props was a labor-intensive process, whether they be mundane or fantastical. As the technology matures, though, 3D printing is becoming a core part of the production process. Bobbitt says that the gap from concept to reality is narrowing.

"My prototyping ends up being my final product in many cases. So I'm able to actually print on a 3D printer five or six pieces that I can send straight to paint and use as a prop in the film," said Bobbitt. 

The machines also serve as critical when Bobbitt wants to figure out the size and scale of objects before having a final version made by external partners. 

In "Iron Man 3," for example, supervillain Mandarin wears 10 rings that serve as the primary source of his power, each one providing a different ability like psychic energy. 

Initially, Bobbitt did 2D designs for each of those before getting feedback from the director and actors. He then used 3D modeling software ZBrush to create virtual versions of the items, before printing prototypes to make sure the actor could wear all 10 rings without them bumping into each other.

Ultimately, Bobbitt had an outside jeweler make the final rings. But tapping 3D printing helped ensure that the end product worked perfectly, saving the studio money and time. 

"It's so much quicker to just bang out some concepts and do some quick prototyping, more for scale than anything else, before we go into our production," he said.  

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