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Rise of the Mini Makers

How 3-D printing, the most transformative technological innovation of our time, is taking toy production back to basics

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Cecilia Ruiz

tech

It’s an article of faith in the toy industry that digital has become the biggest, if not the only, game in town. If a plaything comes with drag-and-drop capabilities, Wi-Fi connectivity or the word “interactive” attached to it, the conventional wisdom tells us it sells. Kids, though, tend to have their own ideas about how to have fun. Contrary to the mountains of market research out there, it seems that children won’t always opt for a touchscreen over a lump of clay. Indeed, despite the preponderance of digital doodads available, the hottest toys this holiday season will include Lego blocks. A bigger irony, however, is that technological innovation—in the form of the 3-D printer—has now allowed for children to make their own.

The firm causing the most peptic twinges in toy town, perhaps, is a California startup called Mission Street Manufacturing, which has just launched the Printeer, a 3-D printer that’ll whip up anything a kid draws on a touchscreen device. “The common element of classic toys, such as Etch A Sketch, Play-Doh and Lego, is that they empower kids to create things,” says company CEO Brian Jaffe. “We’re giving them their own toy factory.”

There is a lot of money to be made, or lost, in the so-called additive manufacturing revolution. A recent McKinsey report predicted that 3-D printing could be worth $550 billion a year by 2025, with products such as toys accounting for half of that figure. So, the toy industry, which generates U.S. sales of $22 billion a year, is looking at ways to tap into the 3-D printing market—rather than be swallowed up by it. And the way to go about this, of course, is to throw the word “synergy” around as much as possible.

The Atlanta firm HYREL 3D, for instance, is selling a device that can print with Play-Doh. Hasbro has linked with the online 3-D printing community Shapeways to launch SuperFanArt, which enables users to print and sell their own versions of its toys. An initial stampede of My Little Pony variations will be followed by Transformers and other franchises.

Meanwhile, Lego—the Danish firm that produces about 2,000 bricks every second, and which is especially susceptible to having its products mass-produced in people’s homes—was awarded a patent earlier this year for the 3-D printing of enhancements to its block bases, allowing kids to customize their bricks and providing Lego a seat at the additive manufacturing table.

The oddity at the center of all this is that such a transformative technology should be applied to toys that often have more in common with the Victorian era than with our own. Disney, for instance, has designed an algorithm that prints a spinning top. ThoughtFull Toys is creating a line of printable model cars (along with spare parts and accessories). The line, says spokeswoman Lisa Orman, will “let children interact with real mechanics, feel physics in action, build things with tools and design new car looks and color schemes.”

Orman’s point raises an interesting question: Will the printed toy become the focus of a child’s playtime, or will the kid be more fascinated by the device that created it? In the case of the Printeer, which requires a good deal of creative input from the child, it will most likely be the latter. As Jaffe puts it: “The more we worked on 3-D technology, the more we realized how much fun it would be.” On the other hand,  a Lego block with the owner’s face on it should have an appeal of its own.

One thing that’s for sure is that additive manufacturing will continue to turn the toy industry on its head, and that those with a stake in the game will contrive ever more disruptive ways to put 3-D printing to use. Right now, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University are working with Disney to create a printer that can make objects out of wool, meaning that toddlers will soon be able to print their own cuddly toys.  

Of course, they’ll have to clone Mommy’s credit card first.

Boyd Farrow, a Berlin-based editor and writer, is still awaiting the machine that will allow him to print gin and tonics.

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