What’s Really Going on With the 3D Printed Toy Market Today?


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[Image: Mark Noone]

One of the many industries being disrupted by 3D printing is toys; as most mass-produced playthings are already made of plastic, which is definitely in the 3D printing wheelhouse, it just makes sense to use the technology to repair, replace, or make your own. However, the business opportunities are far more than just fun and games. According to a study published last summer by Michigan Technological University, led by open source advocate Dr. Joshua Pearce, the overall US toy and games market is forecast to reach $135 billion by the year 2020.

Four years ago, global toy brand Toys”R”Us partnered up with Pittsburgh-based startup PieceMaker Technologies to launch a pilot program for 3D printing toys, and installed kiosks in two of its stores that would give customers the chance to interact with, create, and 3D print customized toys. However, programs like this one weren’t enough to help the toy giant compete with online retailers and the company expired despite its best 3D printed toy efforts.

Home 3D printers remove the necessity of having to leave the house and physically go to a brick and mortar store to purchase a toy – now, we can 3D print our own toys from the comfort of our living rooms. Over the years, we’ve seen multiple 3D printers geared towards children and families who want to use them to make their own toys at home.

While he doesn’t own one of these, a friend of mine has access to a 3D printer, which he has used to create toys, or rather parts and pieces of toys, for his 3-year-old son several times.

Grey pieces under black box: one iteration of supports for wall bracket. [Image: Chris Berlo]

“Typically I see a broken piece on one of my kid’s toys,” Chris Berlo told me. “I am an engineer by trade so I take a set of calipers and measure the broken gear or axle and draw it. A few hours later it’s a reality and I’ve made my kid’s day.

“It’s a great way to keep broken toys going,” he says about 3D printing toys, before mentioning that he also uses the technology for household items.”That being said I have also used it for myself. I’ve modeled a few mounting brackets for a wall mounted computer and I feel that they turned out well. The first iterations were not strong enough and the ability to change densities or have a complete redesign with minimal cost is fantastic.”

Another friend does have his own 3D printer at home, which he, like Berlo, uses to 3D print toys, as well as household items.

“I’ve had the Monoprice select v2 mini for about 6 months now,” Mark Noone told me. “I love the ability to create everything from toys to poop bag holders for my dog. I also love that its very accessible and the price points have come down significantly.

“My printer is almost always going! I’ve printed some ferocious T-Rexes, pointy triceratops, and some other animals as well. My favorite part right now is to print parts to improve for my printer. I printed a new spool holder so that the filament points directly at the printer and won’t snag.”

By starting off with something small, like 3D printed toys and items for around the house, 3D printer owners can use the experience as a stepping stone to working on bigger, more ambitious projects.

[Image: Jeff Camealy]

Jeff Camealy, another friend from home, has worked in multiple makerspaces over the years, but for now is relying on his trusty Printrbot 3D printer at home.

He told me why he loves 3D printing so much:

[Image: Jeff Camealy]

“I’m just obsessed with the idea, it’s so science fiction – the ability to be able to take what’s in your mind and put it into the real world is just fascinating. For me, it’s particularly interesting because I’m a software engineer by trade, that’s what I do full time. And I really enjoy that, but I’m also a ‘work with your hands’ kind of guy – I’ve been a woodworker, a metalworker, that sort of thing. And so it’s a fun place where it can come together in one activity.”

Right now, Camealy and his 5-year-old son are working to complete their goal of developing three prototype toys by the end of the year.

“Basically working toys that you can print on a 3D printer and maybe using some simple additional materials, like little metal rods, something you could just use a coat hanger and cut it off…It’s been cool,” Camealy explained. “I was telling him about it and he got really excited about it. He drew up some drawings that he wanted me to make, I put those into my modeling library, built it up, we printed the first version of it. He liked it, it was cool to see it go from paper to three dimensional. But immediately, he was like, wait, why don’t the wheels spin, why doesn’t…basically he was saying, why isn’t it kind of more three dimensional, like a real car. Because basically it’s a flat car, the way it first came out. But that’s the way he drew it, so it’s like, okay, we’re going to refine it from there. And you know, teach him about perspective in drawing, even, so he can get more of what’s in his mind. And then also, it turns out that he wants it to be an elevator car, which I don’t even know exactly what that means, but I think he wants something that moves up and down. But again, through iteration that’s something we can totally do. We can have some piece, whether printed in a single unit or another part that you drop in, maybe a pulley, some string, and we can make an elevator car. So I think the elevator car is one of the toy prototypes that we’re going to work on. With my daughter, I’ve mostly printed animals. I mean, I let them choose and she mostly wants puppies and kitties. Those I just pulled off of Thingiverse, I didn’t really do any designing with that. But it gets her involved, and she enjoys watching them being printed out and playing with them and destroying them.”

“I think it’s a great tool for kids. It’s fascinating,” Camealy continued. “And it’s such an interesting tension right now, just in 2018, basically computers and kids and how they interact with them. And I think there’s a decent amount of pushback of if our kids are on these devices, on these computers all day long, they’ll have no social skills, they’ll have no real world skills. But 3D printing’s an interesting opportunity where we can bridge that a little bit, in that they can learn programming, they can learn 3D drawing, and it can come back into the real world – it does print something out that they can psychically use with their hands. I know with kids, one of the issues with being on iPads all day is that they lose that physical dexterity, they lose some of that spatial awareness stuff. And, you know, some of those physical coordination aspects. And so if you’re printing out parts to a toy that you’re designing, and then you’re physically putting them together, you’re using physical materials – glue, nuts, bolts, those sorts of things – I think it’s an exciting thing. And the kids love it, they’re fascinated by it, and I’m just as fascinated as they are.”

[Image: Jeff Camealy]

3D printing is definitely a great educational tool. You can use 3D software programs to design your own toy models, and Autodesk’s Tinkerplay app is meant to teach kids how to model in a fun environment. If you’re not the designing type, platforms like Thingiverse, Shapeways, and MyMiniFactory offer free files for 3D printable toy models. You can even order a custom toy online from a 3D printing service or business, like Proto BuildBar, Ohio’s resident 3D printing bar located in my hometown of Dayton…though this last will require you to leave the house.

[Image: Proto BuildBar via Facebook]

Alex Todd, the General Manager of Proto BuildBar, told me that the employees there see a lot of interest from customers in 3D printing toys.

“Being a makerspace specifically targeting beginners, we have a lot of kids and adults that are just starting to figure out the capabilities of the technology,” Todd tells me. “3d printed toys help to not only generate excitement around the capabilities of the machines, but also gives us an avenue to teach folks how to make simple customizations to those toys using CAD. Whether it’s putting a child’s name on a action figure, or printing a custom Catan board, these items help create a real understanding that with a little brain power and creativity, you can use a printer to create almost anything you can dream.”

Not only can you use 3D printing to make new toys, but you can also modify and enhance existing ones, such as this 3D printed Rubik’s Cube with Braille numbers for the visually impaired.

Some toy manufacturers are using 3D printing in production and prototyping, in order to compare various versions of a toy, see how well its parts fit together, and determine the design quality before it’s time for mass production. By finding any potential issues early on for a minimal cost, productivity gains can go way up. Other companies also use the technology to improve their customers’ experience by providing 3D printed toy figurines or selfies.

“On the long run, leveraging 3D printing could lead to significant gains for toy manufacturers. Indeed, they could go from selling actual toys to selling only 3D files of toys. They would then transfer the manufacturing part to the customers; avoiding all the packaging and shipping,” wrote Martin Lansard in a post for Aniwaa. ” Another way of making productivity gains would be allowing the customers to customize toys using 3D printing.

“All of those future customer-friendly apps should allow customers to make or add specific elements from a predefined list to a generic toy.”

Not everyone is going mad for 3D printed toys, though. Arden Rosenblatt, the CEO of PieceMaker, told me that as a result of “a lack of investor interest,” the company has been “less active in the toy space over the past year or two,” focusing instead on “broader applications to retail across various new product categories.”

“Much can be said of the potential impact of mass-customization, digital manufacturing and inventory on-demand,” Rosenblatt wrote in a piece he shared with me called “The Future of 3D Printing” that can also be applied to the 3D printed toy market.

“For one, AM may be one of our greatest assets toward a sustainable future. Instead of incremental improvements, distributing digital files rather than physical goods fundamentally eliminates much of the inherent cost, complexity, waste and environmental impact. It also shifts market focus from high volumes, to innovative solutions, experiences and products. In countries like the US, where the priority is to revitalize local economies through innovation, this may be the greatest opportunity of all.”

[Image: PieceMaker]

Rosenblatt continued, “Regardless of velocity, the direction is clear: we’re moving from an age of consolidation and economies of scale, to one of personalization, localization and decentralization. The economy of the individual.”

[Image via Design Share Make]

Of course, there are potential downsides to 3D printing toys that you have not personally customized. Care must be taken to ensure that the intellectual property of toy manufacturers is protected when introducing the technology into business workflows, so that piracy and illegal downloads of 3D files don’t jeopardize the companies.

However, it’s pretty clear that in order to take advantage of 3D printing to the fullest extent, toy manufacturers, contractors, and even home users will eventually design new business models beyond the tried and true method of taking your kids to Toys”R”Us, especially now that Geoffrey the Giraffe has all but retired. One day, instead of going out to purchase toys, perhaps we’ll simply purchase 3D files for toys online and make them ourselves at home.

My hope is that existing businesses are able to successfully adopt 3D printing into their workflows. Maybe we’ll still end up buying 3D files, or 3D printed toys, but inside the store instead of from home. I still think there’s something special about walking into a toy store, and I’m hoping the toy market can adapt to the changing consumer landscape so that this magic can still exist.

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below. 

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