When Automatic Retailers of America, Inc. introduced Mold-A-Rama to America in 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis had just fizzled. Let’s see YOU work that well when you’re 60!
Since the 1960s, no additional Mold-A-Rama or Mold-A-Matic machines have been manufactured. Each is almost 60 years old, kept alive through patience, care, and mechanical cannibalism. The very machines grandparents put their quarters into is the same machines parents put their dollar bills into, and the same machines kids swipe chip cards through today.
Only the currency has changed.
A Manufacturing Revolution?
These patented plastic-forming machines came to market in 1962 as the first phase in an ambitious revolution of manufacturing. Its parent company put no ceiling on the potential of these blow molds. Whether optimism or an attempt to attract investors, ARA foresaw great things ahead, as we see in this ’62 Detroit news article: “Within a decade, Americans will purchase a large percentage of their daily, nonfood needs from machines that spring from these pioneer units.“
In other words, Mold-A-Rama would change manufacturing forever. That did not exactly happen, but the engineering behind these machines is clever nonetheless.
In the Mold-A-Rama, you’ve got a compressor, refrigeration, a heating element, and hydraulic pistons all working together (professional and amateur engineers, skip this part and check out US Patent 3135814A).
Inside the Mold-A-Rama
(1.) You put in your money to start the machine. The plastic used to create the blow molds stays constantly heated in the machine’s reservoir (and causes the Mold-A-Rama’s signature hot plastic smell). (2.) The hydraulic pistons press the two halves of the refrigerated aluminum mold together over twin inlet/outlet passages. Kept at roughly 45 degrees F, the cold temperature prevents the liquid plastic from sticking to the metal as it comes apart. (3.) A pre-measured amount of plastic is injected into the mold through the inlet passage, followed by a blast of compressed air.
(4.)This fills the cavity of the mold, giving the toy its shape, and the outlet passage relives the air pressure. This moving air is the key difference between early injection molding and blow molding. These inlet/outlet passages also leave the twin holes in the bottom of each toy. (5.) The arms return to the start position, opening the mold, and a pusher comes down and gently scraps the toy from the stainless steel surface. (6.) The still-warm toy tumbles into the receptacle. The entire operation takes from 30 to 35 seconds.
From New Tech to Novelty
Outside of maintenance, Mold-A-Rama automatic molding machines faded away for one simple reason: cost. These intricate assembly lines were literally automatic factories. This automation operated for days or even weeks without a human operator, and that kind of automation is not cheap. This cooled the entire industry. By the early 1970s, the dream of a blow-molded future vanished…but the machines did not.
Starting with Chicagoland, Mold-A-Ramas found their way into museums, zoos, and other tourist attractions, and became a fixture for generations of children. Two regional companies operate and service these machines: Mold-A-Rama operates over 100 units throughout in the Midwest; Mold-A-Matic (called Unique Souvenirs, Inc.) services around 75 machines in and around Florida parks and the southeast United States.Although the two companies are separate on paper and in territory, the machines are the same.
In Chicago alone (as of 2021), you’ll find Mold-A-Rama at Brookfield Zoo, the Field Museum, the Museum of Science & Industry, the Sears (!!) Tower, Lincoln Park Zoo, and the Chicago Sports Museum.
Each molded toy figure costs between $3 and $5, which may sound like a lot, but $.25 in 1962 is roughly $2.25 today. If you add the increased maintenance and repair costs necessary to service 60-year-old machines, a few dollars suddenly doesn’t sound so high. There’s also a large collector’s culture for these figures, with discontinued figures selling for hundreds on eBay, and social media groups on Facebook and Reddit.
Want to Know More?
Locate each and every Mold-A-Rama machine in the United States with Waymarking.com‘s extensive database Mold-a-Rama Machines. This impressive resource not only includes each machine’s location, but also the current molded toy offered there.
Stay updated on Mold-A-Rama’s machines by following their Facebook Page HERE or browsing their website HERE.