You might think the ability to create a plastic bauble on-demand is a new thing brought about by the advent of the 3-D printer, but the concept actually became a reality in the mid-1950s with the creation of the Mold-A-Rama.
Mold-A-Ramas are vending machines that make and dispense plastic toys while you wait. All you have to do is pop in the required amount of change — usually 25 or 50 cents in the early years, though now they run around $2 — and the machine buzzes, whirs and clangs an inexpensive but fun souvenir into existence, from melted plastic to solid form, in under a minute.
In some ways the Mold-A-Rama is a relic of a bygone age, but many of the machines are still operational after all these years, and people are still enthralled by them. Read on to find out what led to their invention and what they do.
History of Mold-A-Rama
The Mold-A-Rama was invented by J.H. Miller (nicknamed Tike) of Illinois. He got into figurine making in the late 1930s when he needed a replacement part for a nativity scene and couldn't find a store that would sell him an individual piece. He made one out of plaster himself, and soon he and his wife began producing plaster figures in their basement.
They founded a company, acquired a factory, hired employees and ended up selling the figures to department stores. They initially created the figures by pouring plaster into rubber molds. But in 1955, the company developed special injection molding machines, the predecessors to Mold-A-Rama, and switched to plastic.
The company went bankrupt in 1959 or 1960. Around that time, Tike developed the idea of a vending machine that would instantly make plastic souvenirs for individual customers. He licensed the idea to the vending machine company Automatic Retailers of America (ARA, now called Aramark) and worked with them to develop the original machines, which premiered at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. They produced figures such as the Space Needle or a monorail for 50 cents.
Even more machines, perhaps as many as 150, were deployed at the 1964-1965 World's Fair in New York City. There you could get a dinosaur at Sinclair Oil's Dinoland exhibit for 25 cents from a Sinclair branded Mold-A-Rama and Disney figures from Disneyland Toy Factory branded machines. The device hit the 1967 Montreal World's Fair (Expo '67), where attendees could purchase the fair's logo on a maple leaf or figures of the Eiffel Tower or Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
ARA manufactured about 200 of the machines from 1962 to 1969, and they spread across the U.S. to tourist attractions, rest stops and local stores alike. The company decided to get out of the business and sold all their Mold-A-Ramas by 1971.
What Mold-A-Ramas Do
The machines perform injection blow-molding to create figurines while the customer watches through a window. You enter the required amount of money, and the machine springs to life. Through a glass window, you can see two aluminum molds with various tubes and rods attached to them, each the reverse form of one half of a figure, such as an animal or building.
Using hydraulics, the two molds move toward each other until they are pressed together, forming a complete seal except for holes in the bottom area of the mold for input and output of material and air. The mold halves are each hollow, with two holes at the top to allow coolant (either antifreeze or water) to constantly flow through them via attached tubes.
Polyethylene plastic is melted and stored in a holding tank beneath the molds. The molten plastic is pumped into the cavity between the two halves of the two-part mold through one of the holes at the bottom. Once the mold is filled with plastic, compressed air is blown into the cavity between the two mold halves to push the liquid plastic against the cooled walls of the mold. This also pushes the uncooled plastic still at the core out of the mold through a drainage hole and back into the tank, making the figure hollow.
The two halves of the mold then separate, and the finished toy is pushed by a rod into a dispenser slot, where you pick up the slightly warm, newly created statue. The outside is hard enough for handling, but the figure is not entirely hardened at this point. There are labels on some machines telling customers to hold the figure upside down until it is cool.
More Technical Details
The early molds were made of milled aluminum, but sand-cast aluminum molds were adopted at some point. They're negative molds cast from an original sculpture. Each mold half is made of two pieces, one with the mold on the front and a bowl-like cavity on the back, and the other a back plate that is sealed over the cavity, leaving a hollow area for the coolant. Two holes at the top of each mold piece allow antifreeze or cold water to flow through the mold half. They are cooled to about 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-3.8 degrees Celsius) to allow the plastic against the mold walls to solidify.
The polyethylene plastic is put into the machine's hopper as pellets. They are brought to and kept at temperatures anywhere from 185 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (85 to 121 Celsius), depending on the melting point of the type of polyethylene. The melting is caused by steam running through coils in the holding tank. The type of plastic used has varied over time and location, and today a more durable blend is used in many of the machines, although Honeywell still makes a lower density polyethylene blend closer to the original that is still used in some Mold-A-Ramas. The St. Paul Como Zoo was reportedly able to move their machines indoors with the animals once they no longer released toxic fumes [source: Nelson].
The machines have to be routinely refilled will plastic pellets, hydraulic fluid and coolant. In the early machines, color was achieved by adding a powdered colorant in with the raw colorless plastic pellets. In the mid-1970s, less messy color-infused plastic pellets were added to the raw plastic instead.
Mold-A-Rama is similar to a 3-D printer in that it makes a plastic bauble quickly on-demand, but it's dissimilar in that it's a mechanical rather than computerized process in which a hard mold is required (rather than a digital 3-D model). Additionally, each machine can produce only one type of figure until the mold is swapped out.
The Figures They Make
It's hard to determine exactly how many unique molds ever existed, but Bill Bollman, who owns a Mold-A-Rama machine and runs the website Moldville.com, estimates approximately 300 designs were created [source: Lammle]. Some were reportedly stolen and sold for scrap in the 1980s, but many still exist.
Machines were often set up to make figures related to their locations: animals for zoos, logos for events such as world fairs, and local landmarks such as the Chicago skyline or Grauman's Chinese Theater. There are also seasonal holiday molds including Santa, a snowman, a reindeer and a holiday tree. Molds exist for lots of animals, dinosaurs, cars, trains, ships, submarines, tanks, busts of presidents and other famous people (even Lawrence Welk), tourist attractions, and NASA craft including Space Lab, the Project Mercury space capsule, the space shuttle and the Titan IIIC missile, among other things. The machines can handle mold plates of various sizes, so the toys range in size, including some coin bank designs.
Disney figures were produced by Mold-A-Rama machines rebranded as the Disneyland Toy Factory. These included Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto, Goofy, Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Br'er Rabbit. The machines were customized with Disney figures posed to look like they were operating the various parts of the machine.
There were other rebranded machines besides Disneyland and Sinclair, including a Universal Studios machine that made a Frankenstein coin bank and a Miami Seaquarium machine that made a Flipper dolphin figurine. Lots of customized signs were made for the machines, some with slots that allowed owners to swap out location- and toy-related text.
Mold-A-Ramas Still in Operation
Although the devices are no longer manufactured, you can still find many of the machines in operation today, thanks in large part to two companies: Replication Devices and Mold-A-Rama Inc. Some smaller companies and individuals also own and operate Mold-A-Ramas.
Replication Devices was founded by Eldin Irwin, who bought dozens of machines from ARA in the early 1960s and sculpted a lot of his own master molds. The company passed down through his family and is currently in the hands of his grandson Tim Striggow and Tim's wife, Denise Striggow. The company operates about 60 or 70 Mold-A-Ramas and owns about 140 along with hundreds of molds. Some of their locations include:
- Busch Gardens (Tampa, Florida)
- Gatorland (Orlando, Florida)
- Seaquarium (Miami, Florida)
- Manatee Viewing Center (Apollo Beach, Florida)
- Central Florida Zoo (Sanford, Florida)
- The Lowry Park Zoo (Tampa, Florida)
- Zoo Miami (Miami, Florida)
Mold-A-Rama Inc., called the William A. Jones Co. until they officially changed their name in 2011, got into the business in 1971 when William A. Jones bought several machines from Roy Ward. Ward was an employee of the original Mold-A-Rama Inc. (owned by ARA) and had purchased his machines from ARA when they decided to get out of the Mold-A-Rama business. Jones's company expanded when he bought out another franchisee, Paul Nathanson, in the 1980s.
The company is still run by the Jones family, including William A. Jones's sons, Paul and Bill. They operate about 60 machines at various locations, some of which have been clients since the 1960s. Their locations include:
- Como Park Zoo & Conservatory (St. Paul, Minnesota)
- San Antonio Zoo (San Antonio, Texas)
- Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village (Dearborn, Michigan)
- Milwaukee County Zoo (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
- Brookfield Zoo - Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield, Illinois)
- The Field Museum (Chicago, Illinois)
- Lincoln Park Zoo (Chicago, Illinois)
- Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago, Illinois)
- Willis Tower (Chicago, Illinois)
- Chicago Sports Museum (Chicago, Illinois)
In 1996, the Knoxville Zoo acquired several machines from Dollywood, and they're still in operation producing plastic animals. Collectors like Bob Bollman of Moldville.com also own working Mold-A-Ramas.
The toys from Mold-A-Ramas still in operation these days mostly hover around the $2 mark. The machines cost quite a bit to operate and require lots of maintenance, what with the constant heating and cooling and moving parts, but they are popular attractions in their own right. In 2004, the San Antonio Zoo estimated that they sold about 130,000 figurines per year [source: Garza].
Original figures still fetch anywhere from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars on auction sites like eBay. The originals were made of a plastic that easily broke or melted, so many no longer exist.
New Uses for Mold-A-Rama
New custom molds are occasionally created for the machines, although it's not an easy undertaking.
Chicago toy store Rotofugi acquired and repurposed a Mold-A-Rama that was originally at the Los Angeles Zoo. They call it the Roto-a-Matic, and it produces a toy called the Helper Dragon from a new custom mold of a sculpture by artist Tim Biskup. You can get one by purchasing a token for $6, putting it in the machine and watching it go, or by ordering the sculpture from the store.
The mold was made by 3-D scanning an original sculpture, designing a mold using CAD (computer-aided design) and having an aluminum cast made of the mold. Rotofugi had planned to regularly feature new designs by artists, but making new molds has proven difficult and expensive, so for now they are simply changing the color each month.
Aside from people buying and refurbishing existing machines, at least one person was inspired to take it a step further. James Durand designed and constructed his own small version of the Mold-A-Rama, dubbed the Mini-Molder, and displayed it at Maker Faire Bay Area in 2014 [sources: AsherMade, Doctrow, Szczys]. It produced a figurine of the Makey robot that's featured on Maker Faire's logo.
Despite the fact that Mold-A-Ramas are practically antiques, they remain popular to this day.
Author's Note: How Mold-A-Rama Works
The manufacturing processes behind souvenirs and other plastic baubles that we buy are fascinating, and Mold-A-Rama machines give you a tiny glimpse into one such process. While researching this, I was sad to learn that there was a Mold-A-Rama within 30 miles of me as recently as 2013, but that it's no longer there. But there are still many out in the wild. I will endeavor to locate one during my next Florida trip, at the very least, and bring home a little plastic piece of history.
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