Judging by this year’s Toy Fair in New York, it’s only taken a couple of years for 3D printing to carve out a niche in the world of children’s toys. Starting with PieceMaker, which puts largely self-serve kiosks in stores and other venues that let customers choose and personalize a build from their growing library of designs (now including licensed models from Ford and Nickelodeon) more companies are trying different ways to get 3D printing technology into kids’ hands.
One way to do that is with 3D “printing” pens. The best-known name is this area has been 3Doodler — but up until now, safety concerns have limited their freehand printers to ages 14 and up. This year the company is introducing the 3Doodler Start for younger kids. Instead of the typical PLA or ABS filament strands used by the 3Doodler 2.0, the 3Doodler Start uses what co-founder and CEO Maxwell Bogue described as food safe, biodegradeable material (although you wouldn’t want to eat it). More importantly, unlike the original pen, the Start pen doesn’t get hot enough to cause burns to skin or furniture. The extruded material is safe to touch right out of the pen tip. The Start is expected to ship in May 2016 and will retail for around $50. For the next few weeks, it is available at the special preorder price of $39.99.
The maker of the 3D Magic “printer” — which is actually a curing booth for creations made from a gel that hardens under UV light — is also moving into the printing pen area with the ImagiPen. Instead of a heating element, the ImagiPen points a ray of UV light at the gel material as it is extruded. The gel is not “edible” but it is similar to the material used in making dental molds. The ImagiPen is also expected to be cheaper, in the $20 range.
A company called Arckit is using 3D printing in a different way. Their snap-together architectural modeling kit was created for professionals, but has been popular with schools as well. Founder and CEO Damien Murtagh said the company will soon open the Arckit Infiniti 3D store on the website of 3D printing service Shapeways, where users will be able to print made-to-order details like arches, columns, and stairs, as well as figurines, furniture, vehicles, and landscape elements that connect with the standard kit base and parts.
But the biggest news regarding 3D printers and toys is something I didn’t manage to catch: Mattel and Autodesk are teaming up to create the ThingMaker system, which lets you put together your own toys, jewelry, and more using hundreds of different mix-and-match parts. The name harkens back to Mattel’s Creepy Crawlers series of DIY gooey bugs made by pouring liquid plastic into molds, but this machine is a real 3D printer. You assemble your designs using the ThingMaker app, available for iOS and Android devices, which can be downloaded and printed on any 3D printer. The ThingMaker printer itself won’t be ready until the fall, but you can preorder it now from Amazon. It is expected to retail for around $300.
With all the 3D printing options moving into the children’s toy market in the coming months, it will be interesting to see if 2016 will be the year the technology finally goes mainstream. In the meantime, look for more coverage of maker trends at the 2016 Toy Fair in New York coming this week.