3D Printing Toys Isn’t All Fun & Games: Michigan Tech & MyMiniFactory Discuss New Study Detailing 3D Printed Disruption


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Open-source fully 2D and 3D printable do-it-yourself (DIY) cooperative Save the Planet Board Game in mid-play [Image from the study]

3D printing is a disruptive technology making its mark across several industries; this is no longer a projection, but an in-process matter of fact as additive manufacturing comes into play in aerospace, automotive, defense, medical, and other applications requiring the tight tolerances and unique geometries made possible through advanced production methods. Customization is often referred to as key in these industries, as 3D printed parts can be application- or patient-specific. But what about a less mission-critical, still very personal, industry? 3D printing is disrupting the toys and games industry, and a recent study shows that this move is happening now.

Michigan Technological University published a study, led by the prolific Dr. Joshua Pearce, early this year examining the impact, in terms of return on investment, of at-home 3D printing for the creation of household goods. That study found, perhaps to the surprise of some, an ROI potential of about 1,000% over a five-year period. While many in the industry overall are moving well away from the idea of consumer 3D printers, in-depth looks at what they’re capable of for an average home user mean we perhaps shouldn’t discount desktop 3D printers for home use just yet. In a study published yesterday, Dr. Pearce and Michigan Tech student Emily Petersen, who co-authored the at-home ROI study, teamed up with Romain Kidd, CEO of well-known 3D design repository MyMiniFactory, to dive into another area of digital disruption as 3D printing is, they say, set to take on traditional toy manufacture.

The study, “Impact of DIY Home Manufacturing with 3D Printing on the Toy and Game Market,” examines the potential impact of consumer 3D printing on the US toy and game market. While this is a fun topic to think about, it’s also serious business; the study notes that the overall market is forecast to reach $135 billion in 2020. No matter which numbers you’re looking at for the overall US toy and game industry, figures are pretty large and growth is fairly consistent. In order to estimate how 3D printing might affect the industry, for the purposes of this study the researchers took into account the 100 most popular designs downloaded from MyMiniFactory over the course of a month, and looked to the costs of 3D printing these designs using a [easyazon_link identifier=”B00S54E1AI” locale=”US” tag=”3dprint09-20″]LulzBot Mini 3D printer[/easyazon_link] with three different types of filament (commercial, pellet-extruded, and post-consumer waste recycled into filament). As the study abstract states:

“Case studies probed the quality of: (1) six common complex toys; (2) Lego blocks; and (3) the customizability of open source board games. All filaments analyzed saved the user over 75% of the cost of commercially available true alternative toys and over 90% for recyclebot filament. Overall, these results indicate a single 3D printing repository among dozens is saving consumers well over $60 million/year in offset purchases. The most common savings fell by 40%–90% in total savings, which came with the ability to make novel toys and games. The results of this study show consumers can generate higher value items for less money using the open source distributed manufacturing paradigm. It appears clear that consumer do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturing is set to have a significant impact on the toy and game markets in the future.”

And the cost savings are indeed demonstrable. One key example pointed out in the study examines the ever-popular Lego brick, as the researchers compared single-block costs for a traditional Lego (6 cents), a generic (3 cents), and three different 3D printed bricks: one with commercial filament (5.8 cents), one made with pellets (1.4 cents), and one made with recycled ABS (0.5 cent).

That consumer 3D printing might tangibly affect an industry so large as toys and games is an interesting claim, so I turned to the study’s authors for more insight. Dr. Pearce from Michigan Tech and Kidd from MyMiniFactory graciously shared additional insights into the study’s purpose and findings, as well as their projections for a future where 3D printing does for Toys “R” Us what Netflix did for Blockbuster — with affect in perhaps just a few holiday seasons from now.

We’ve been seeing a big move away from consumer sales in desktop 3D printers, as several major manufacturers have switched their focus for these machines to educational and industrial users; that does not mean, however, that the consumer/hobbyist/maker market is one to be discounted.

“Desktop 3D printer sales surged again in high double digit growth in the first quarter of 2017 and this does not even capture all the RepRap and other DIY open source 3-D printers that are spreading organically,” Dr. Pearce told me. “For example, there are at least several hundred RepRaps built by students and visitors to Michigan Tech that I know about, which are normally ignored when looking at industry statistics. 3-D printers are actually already surprisingly popular considering how difficult low cost printers were to use only a few years ago.”

Dr. Joshua Pearce [Photo: Michigan Tech]

There are definitely 3D printers out there, and people using them — indeed, Dr. Pearce has taught his classes how to build their own RepRap 3D printers — but how likely is it that they’ll start actually 3D printing, and what will it take to make this more widespread? These answers, Dr. Pearce explained, come through cost benefits, as price points for desktop 3D printers, as well as for their associated consumables, drop to more affordable levels — with  understandable capabilities.

“What the results of our study showed is that the idea that people would be making products for themselves in their own homes is no longer theoretical science fiction. Real distributed manufacturing is already happening now. We carefully documented 10s of millions of dollars of economic savings for such DIY use of 3-D printers already– for only toys and games for one database (MyMiniFactory). However, it is important to point out this was not a comprehensive review of all products — it only looked at the top 100 downloads at the start of this year from one repository. This represents a tiny <1% fraction of their offerings– and that is just one repository among dozens offering literally millions of free and open source 3-D printable designs,” Dr. Pearce told me.

The benefits of 3D printing at home, as the machines themselves become more accessible, extend beyond cost savings (though in the ever-costly world of really cool toys this can never be downplayed too much) and into one of the bastions of 3D printing: customizability. Kids can have their own toys, designed and made just for them.

“For this to become truly widespread however, the costs must continue to drop while improving the reliability for desktop 3-D printers. As there are already 3-D printers on the market for a few hundred dollars (one kit even for $99) there are only a few more Christmases before it becomes very common for children to ask for hyper-custom toys, which will be made by loving parents in their own homes with 3-D printers. To make them acceptable they must get easier to use – the low cost printers have to have some of the features we see in the middle of the range printers (like the Lulzbot Mini we used for the study)- like auto bed leveling. I think the future we will also see widespread error detection and correction, multimaterials, and easy to use material profile settings — all of which would add to a low-hassle printing experience for the average non-technically sophisticated consumer,” Dr. Pearce continued.

“Lastly, there is still a large markup on the cost of filament — that, for example, does not make it economic to print simple Lego-compatible blocks using commercial plastic filament. These costs will drop as recyclebots (https://www.appropedia.org/Recyclebot) -and their commercial counterparts become more widespread and then consumers can choose between recycling their own plastic waste or buying feedstock for a few dollars a kig.”

Romain Kidd [Photo: MyMiniFactory]

The thoughts on machine use fit with the findings — so where is this going? To find out more about this specific market, I turned to Kidd, who shared his thoughts from MyMiniFactory’s perspective, as the relevance of the technology relies upon the availability of designs.

The design site has been keeping close tabs on its stats, watching the trends in design downloads each month. Since they began tracking and publishing these trends, he explained, toys and games has been consistently in the top three categories each month, accounting for around 20% of each month’s downloads.

This study relied on figures from December 2016, but Kidd noted that had last month’s reports been used instead, data would have indicated even higher returns; June 2017 saw about 310,000 downloads overall (compared to around 133,000 in December), which he noted would bring up the $60 million figure the study notes closer to $150 million.

[Image: MyMiniFactory]

“The major categories on the platform tell a story about the disruption underway in various industries,” he told me. “it’s interesting to do a study on cost benefits — not in the future, but today, with today’s prices of machines, of filaments, of consumables in general, to see the cost benefits for consumers.”

Toys and games is “a super important vertical” for MyMiniFactory, so a closer look at real-world trend effects held great interest as Kidd dived into what 3D printing can do to set this area apart.

“Toys and games is a super exciting industry, and one that exists today,” Kidd said. “I’m not talking about an industry being created thanks to 3D printing. This is a $100 billion per year industry, real numbers are there today. …Toys are made out of hard plastic, desktop 3D printers print in hard plastic, so there are already lots of similarities there. This is also content that is consumed for a short period of time; when you grow up you stop playing with your favorite games, or your favorite games evolve with time.”

[Image: MyMiniFactory]

This factor takes us into an important driver in toys and games: creativity. When I was a kid, Cabbage Patch Dolls flew off shelves at the holidays, while today fidget spinners are an all-season phenomenon; it can be hard to predict just what the hit toy of a given time will be, but a big selection leaves more for kids (and their parents’ wallets) to choose from. The regular development of new wonder-toys is a given in the industry, and it’s here, Kidd pointed out, that digital design can really have influence and give designers more autonomy — and kids more selection.

“This is an industry where creativity has a lot of value, it’s why we’re so excited for potential for the toys and games industry. The toy is captivating for its playfulness, which comes down to creativity of toy designer behind it. Opening to the crowd means anyone with a brilliant idea for a toy or game has the ability to make it,” he told me, moving into the ways that this creativity can unleash disruption.

“The kind of impact we’re having, and designers are having, by uploading toys and games is very similar to the impact that YouTube had on entertainment. 15 years ago, if you wanted to have your own tech review show or your own TV show, reality show, political show, whatever the area — you would have had to go to a television channel and work your way up to having your own show. Now, if you have talent and just want to try it out you can go to You Tube and have your own show. That’s transformed. Videos are now less than three minutes on average, and are consumed on the go; this was not the case 15 years ago. The people on YouTube look different than those on TV, they are more representative of and more connected to millennials, to each generation. Toys and games are having similar type of impact.”

Examples of cost-savings via 3D printing from the study

The idea here is that, much like a wannabe-TV-host in the dark days before YouTube would have had to work through the ranks at a TV station, before digital design came into the picture, a designer with an idea for a new toy previously had to go through, generally, an established toy company. Kidd walked through the steps that had been at play here: getting a position at the toy company, putting ideas down on paper and working with a creative team, selling the design, having it made, having access to manufacturing facilities in China, and eventually having the toy shipped back over and putting it on a shelf in a toy store.

“What we’re seeing with this industry now with toys is you can upload and share your model. If you’re 18 years old with an idea, you can upload your design and share with millions of people around the world. Those people are much more competitive because it’s much more efficient. The cost of distribution is much cheaper than anything that involves logistics and storage, it is by far more efficient there,” he said.

“What it’s going to do to those legacy industry is a lot of these old world players are going to die and disappear. A company like Toys ‘R’ Us will eventually go down. A toy sits on the shelf until somebody comes and picks it up. That model is dying. Netflix and YouTube killed Blockbuster, which was the go-to place for buying video content 10 to 15 years ago; it was the same way bookstores died when ebooks went digital, and the same for music, all your music stores are dead and replaced by Spotify and SoundCloud. MyMiniFactory is having that same impact on the toy factory. Even distribution of toys done on ecommerce will eventually move to a larger share of digital. Some interesting things happen in the toys and games market, and we’re quite excited to have a central role there.”

Taking on Toys “R” Us is, when first confronted with the idea, a bold claim indeed. Perhaps it’s nostalgia — I still have my laminated Blockbuster card and there’s a solid chance my Borders card is still on my keychain — but Toys “R” Us seems pretty ingrained in the culture of toy sales. Backed up as it is, though, with Dr. Pearce and Kidd’s thoughts on the realities inherent in desktop 3D printing and the growth we’re seeing in democratized design, perhaps this isn’t so far-fetched.

We’re already affecting the phase that comes after brick and mortar and ecommerce,” Kidd said. “Brick and mortar Toys ‘R’ Us is now challenged by ecommerce, by the Amazons of this world. The third phase is purely digital distribution of this content. It will take the time that’s directly a factor of adoption of desktop 3D printers. Where are we today? Half a million desktop 3D printers have been sold around the world, around the next few years we’ll have millions of people consuming content on these devices. We’re looking at a few years, a handful of years, for it to have a significant portion of the market.”

Examples of cost-savings via 3D printing from the study

There are, of course, still limitations, and even with the disruption that digital design distribution could cause, no one is claiming that 3D printing will overtake the entire toy and game industry. Some toys, Kidd points out, are too big or otherwise just don’t make sense for 3D printing. Still, he pointed out that if even 10% of the $100 billion toy and game market is addressable, that’s a hefty chunk for 3D printing to take on.

“People ask, what can I 3D print? Some say everything, that only your creativity is the limit,” Kidd told me. “The reality is there are major verticals that we cover, toys and games is just one that we cover that is on top. It makes sense that we put a lot of thought into it.”

From the increasing availability of designs to recycled materials lowering filament costs, several factors are stacking up to make 3D printing a bit part of the overall toy and game market. You can read more about the study’s findings from Michigan Tech, and access the full study here. Share your thoughts in the Toys and Games forum at 3DPB.com.


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