From Creepy Crawlers to 3D Printers: Mattel Resurrects the ThingMaker

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635907940833384745-ThingMaker--3D-Printer-2-WebOne sign that I’m getting old is that I’ve started to do the “back in my day!” thing more often than I’m entirely comfortable with. One example of this is when it comes to kids’ toys. I’ve written a bit about 3D printers for kids, which are becoming more common; I’ve also seen virtual reality headsets, tablets, and even robots designed specifically for children. “Back in my day, we played with rocks!” This is actually true: rocks made great currency, “food” for the outdoor “kitchen,” buried treasure and projectiles.

I did play with a few high-tech toys, though, which in the ’90s meant a Skip-it, a Lite Brite, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles pizza shooter, Shrinky Dinks (I still have a magnet on my fridge made from a California Raisins Shrinky Dink I was very proud of) and Creepy Crawlers, the official name for which, I’m just now learning, was “ThingMaker.” The toy consisted of metal molds into which you poured a dubious, colorful chemical substance. The molds were then heated until the chemical substance solidified into wibbly-wobbly, Jello-like insects, which were NOT to be eaten. I’m not sure what their purpose was, actually, other than throwing them at your cousins, but they were fun.

ThingMaker back in my day.

ThingMaker back in my day.

Like I said, high tech! Most of my childhood toys are obsolete now, though I did just discover, to my surprise, that Shrinky Dinks are still a thing. But now comes the news that Mattel has resurrected the ThingMaker. Yes! It’s not the goopy mess it was back in my day, though – it’s now been upgraded to…a 3D printer for kids!

Yes, even Creepy Crawlers are cooler than I am now. The new and improved ThingMaker was just unveiled at Toy Fair in New York, and the noxious chemicals and metal molds have been replaced by PLA filament and, naturally, an app for iOs and Android. While the printer itself won’t be on the market until the fall, the ThingMaker Design app is live now and can be used to design items for other 3D printers. (As of Monday, you can start pre-ordering the printer on Amazon.)

ThingMaker now.

“We’re going to use these seven months to really learn and gain analytics of how people are using it,” said Aslan Appleman, a senior director at Mattel. “Our thought is we want to make this open to makers. What we want to highlight is the ThingMaker ecosystem.”

Image: USA Today

Image: USA Today

The easy-to-use app lets kids design toys by dragging and dropping parts from a palette into a template, where they can arrange and assemble them as they wish. Several parts are printed together in batches; kids choose the colors in the app and they are then printed one color at a time. The door automatically locks once printing starts – a safety feature common to most kid-friendly printers.

The printer and app were designed in conjunction with Autodesk, who announced an official partnership with Mattel last year for the purpose of marketing 3D printing and technology apps to kids, and they look like they’ll be a good way for children to start grasping how 3D design works. While the drag-and-drop format isn’t exactly CAD, it still helps kids to understand how a digital design can be turned into a physical object.

“All the physical behaviors are as it would be when it was actually printed out, so you can get an idea for how it is going to mechanically move and what the limits of all the joints and sockets that you create are,” said Dan Pressman, creative director at Autodesk.

Still a bit creepy, actually.

Still a bit creepy, actually.

The ThingMaker printer, which will retail for $299.99, is listed as being for kids ages 13 and older, but the toys you can print out are safe for children as young as 3. For kids too young to use a 3D printer themselves, I imagine it could still be a great parent-child project.

Although this ThingMaker bears little or no resemblance to the ThingMaker of my childhood, keeping the name is a nice shout-out to ’90s kids, many of whom have children of their own now. (“Back in my day, all my ThingMaker could make was fake Jello bugs!”) How do you think apps like this will affect the world of toy manufacturing in the future? Discuss in the ThingMaker 3D Printed Toys forum over at 3DPB.com.

thingmaker site

thingmaker filament

[Images: Mattel / ThingMaker / USA Today]

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