Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Is 3D Printing the Future of Plastic Toys?

My 3D Printed Tangram Rocket
Home 3D printing is now a reality for early adopters and hobbyists. The cost and quality of toys you can print at home doesn't yet come close to mass-produced plastic from China.

But, the technology is developing rapidly. Could this become the way many kids toys are produced in future? Either at home or at a local neighborhood 3D print shop? Let's take a look at the possible future and where I'd like to see this technology head.

Cost and Quality

At the moment you can have lots of fun making homemade toys (we do) but we wouldn't suggest that they are a complete alternative to store bought toys (we have plenty of those too!)

The cost of printing simple objects is fairly high in comparison to a piece of brightly colored tat from the dollar store / pound shop. 

The printing resolution is low so you can't yet produce tiny intricate details and smooth surfaces. And printing multi-colored objects is very limited. 

The resulting creations can also be fragile or brittle in comparison to injection-molded plastics. 

But, these are just point in time statements about the current technology. Commercial 3D printing technologies are further along and the industry is seeing an injection of funding that should progress these issues nicely. I think the current additive approach is just a first step.

Mass adoption will also bring costs down. And in theory it should be cheaper to produce and ship simple plastic filament (or other raw material) in bulk rather than building supply chains for lots of different toys. 

So let's assume that the cost and technology won't be an inhibitor. Then what will the future of toys look like?


Kids love stuff that's unique or personalised. They love being involved in the design process. Our kids will ask for something they need for a role play game. Or we'll work together to design a new toy that matches their current interests. Or we'll make something we'd like to show them - like the tangram set shown in the picture above. 

We also print objects that others have designed and they get to choose their favorite colored filament. 

It's easy to print a unique object to identify their school book bag or lunch bag so they can easily find it. 
I can see customizable designs going viral as kids add their unique twist on a current trend. "Over 3 billion possible designs - you'll probably never see another one just like yours."

Our 3D Printed Greek Temple
I'm sure we'll see lots of parameterized designs where kids can adjust settings before printing to get just what they want. Cubify has a number of these apps including one where you can customize your own space ship and then download it to create at home or use a 3D printing service to get it sent to you.

And some kids will go further and create their own toys.

I helped my 6 year old to create the ancient Greek temple shown in the picture based on his own ideas.

Anyone Can be a Toy Designer

It should be possible for lots more people to be able to design toys. I'm sure many people have had a cool idea for a toy, but it's been too much work to bring it to market. What if you just had to create the design and make it available? 

Hopefully we'll see lots of niche toy designers and more variety in the market.

On a small-scale, designing toys for your own kids is very rewarding. You can make just the right thing for them. I'm sure we'll get design tools that are much simpler than those currently available so this will be an option for more people. It's like the modern equivalent of carving wooden toys for your children!

What Will Happen to Toy Manufacturers?

Lots of traditional toy manufacturers are still reeling from the success of gadgets which have displaced a lot of toy purchases - they're now busy designing 'apptivity' toys to piggy-back on the success of tablets. Next they're going to have to cope with the move to home manufacturing. 

If they get this right then they'll be able to hugely simplify their businesses. The focus will move to digital designs and marketing them, rather than building supply chains for physical products. 

I expect we'll see digital rights management for 3D designs (not just in the toy industry) and single use or time limited print codes.

Will people pay for a design rather than a physical product? I think so. I would. People are buying eBooks and digital music.
Then there will be the 3D printing machines themselves. Some of the parts can be 3D printed, but I expect there to be commercially available assembled models for a long time. 

Will we see the Disney 3D Print Your Dreams: comes with over 300 customizable designs to print?

LEGO®-matic 3000: the highest precision brick-printing machine

(Disney and LEGO® are trademarks of their respective owners. I have no inside knowledge that they are working on these products!)

What about Brands and Licensing?

What will happen if people can just print toys from their favorite TV and movie characters? This is something kids absolutely want to do when they get access to a 3D printer. 

Now of course the big brands will be very nervous about this. I hope they deal with it the right way rather than trying to lock things down. 

What is the right way? Well they need to make it possible for people to license designs for home use and for selling. And they need to produce customizable designs that can be adapted.

Zazzle, the 2D print on demand store, has a model that is heading in this direction. You'll find Disney designs that can be customized with your own text. 

Now of course the brands will want a lot of quality control in place to protect their brands. They'll need to put measures in place to vet designs for approval. 

The brands that get this right will survive into the 3D toy future. Those that don't will get left behind. 

"What do you mean Dad, I can't print red Awesome Monster Giants to give to all my friends at my birthday party? Well Awesome Monster Giants are silly then. Let's choose something else."

Toy Safety

How will we deal with toy safety in the new world? Well first we'll have to find ways of certifying 3D printable toys. Some of the plastics used are generally safe for kids but 3D printed objects are not certified as safe as the design of the toy and the process by which it is made is highly relevant. 

Toy safety certification will have to adapt to this new world and provide certification of materials, designs and 3D printers. 

This will be particularly difficult for toys intended for babies and very young children who put things in their mouths and are at risk from choking. 

But these issue must be addressed for mainstream adoption of 3D printing of toys.

Toy Recycling 

I really, really want toy recycling to be part of this future. As a parent with a house full of plastic, I can't help but feel a bit guilty about the environmental impact. 

As we move to home manufacture the industry must make sure that the next generation of toys are recyclable. Preferably at home, but taking them to a local depot would be the next best thing. 

When you 3D print objects, things sometimes go wrong or don't work as well as you had expected when you saw them on the screen. It would be great to just be able to chuck them back into the recycling compartment on the printer. 

And kids' interests change over time. The toy that was flavor of the day ends up taking up space in a cupboard. We end up holding onto toys, just in case they come back into favor. 

Instant Gratification?

Is there a concern that instant gratification will affect our kids. That they'll be able to download and quickly print loads of toys? (Definitely not at the moment! It takes ages to print things on our current printer!)

Well if the marketing folks get things right then there will still be the big issue of the cost of new toys. Most kids (or parents) will have a limited amount of money to spend on the designs they really want and the printing materials. Kids will still need to save up their money. 

And I think more kids will get into designing their own toys which is certainly not instant gratification. 

And sometimes my kids will find something that they really, really want and already have the money for. In some cases I'd be happy for them to have it straight away. We already have Amazon Prime so we'd only be speeding things up a bit. If they definitely want it and are going to pay for it then they might as well start getting the benefit of it. 

In other cases, that's where parental control comes in. Sometimes I'll get my kids to wait a week or even longer before they can spend their money on something to make sure they really want it. It's no different for a 3D toy.

Tech Integration and Other Non-Printable Parts

Of course, we're increasingly seeing toys that integration technology. I'm sure this will be a part of 3D printing in future. 

I anticipate that we'll be able to buy electronics kits that can be inserted into toys (automatically at the right point.)  This will give us sound, lights, screens, motors, wireless and NFC communication with tablets, etc. 

Imagine being able to create your own custom robot, interactive creature or remote control vehicle. (You can do this now if you accept the limitations and are willing to get stuck in.)

Maybe you'll be able to customize your characters in-game and then print them out at home and slot in the electronics that you can buy separately to allow them to interact with the game?

And while we're at it, let's build in tracking technology so we can easily find the favorite toy that they want to take to Grandma's and we can't find anywhere ...

There are also other non-printable parts that people will want to add like rubber bands, fabric and maybe ink refills for drawing toys. Oh and magnets too, we like magnets (safety precautions needed of course.)

Of course many of these items will themselves become printable over time.

So, is 3D Printing the Future of Plastic Toys?

I think so. I expect that it will steadily grow and then we'll reach a point where home 3D printing machines are affordable and easy enough to use that they become the must-have toy one Christmas. This will probably need a killer application (with killer marketing) that piques the interest of a huge number of kids.

And it's not just plastic, we already have wood filament and lots of other materials can be used in commercial 3D printing.

I like the creativity and individuality that can be applied in making 3D printed toys. The future of toys looks like a lot of fun!

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