A 3-D printer in every household was never going to happen, for so many reasons. But a machine that lets kids design and create their own toys with a few taps on a screen? Now we’re talking.
That 3-D printer is Mattel’s new ThingMaker. To be more precise, it’s a machine paired with some savvy software by Autodesk that makes printing toys and jewelry a snap. (Literally: The pieces are designed to snap together in a wide range of configurations). It’s also the first 3-D printer with a chance of going truly mainstream, potentially bringing the entire consumer industry along with it.
There’s already a market for 3-D printers—it’s just not in people’s homes. Technology analyst firm Canalys’s Joe Kempton estimates that total sales of the devices and the materials and services accompanying them hit $1.8 billion in the first half of 2015 and expects that number to top $20 billion by 2019. Two-thirds of 3-D printers are shipped to the enterprise market, which also generates a whopping 85 percent of the revenue.
“Businesses, particularly those focused on the automotive, aerospace, and medical sectors are investing huge sums of money into 3-D printing,” says Kempton.
Everyday individuals, though, not so much. 3-D printers are expensive, technologically complex, and lack a clearly defined purpose for those who don’t consider themselves part of the maker class. ThingMaker tries to resolve all of those constraints, and does so with the imprimatur of the country’s largest toy company.
“Traditionally if you’ve done any 3-D printing, there are file formats you have to be aware of, you’ve got to teach yourself about repair and geometry, getting it laid out in the bed right way, getting support structures to support things,” says AutoDesk creative director Dan Pressman. “We solve a lot of that.”
That solution comes in the form of a self-contained ecosystem. Kids (or their parents) can work from an existing template or construct their own creation in the ThingMaker Design app, which relies on a simple drag and drop and 3-D visualization to show how the finished product will look (it’s sort of like an Autodesk Lite for kids). From there it’s a literal push of a button, and the ThingMaker spits out your print.
Demystifying the 3-D printing process is but one aspect of ThingMaker’s appeal. Equally important is its price. At $300, it’s not the cheapest consumer-focused 3-D printe, but it’s darn close—which comes with its pros and cons.
“On the one hand, these low-cost devices offer an excellent opportunity to get kids excited about the possibilities of this new technology, getting them interested in design and manufacturing, as well as developing their creative skills to make their own objects,” Kempton says. “However, printers at this sort of price point are likely to have poor reliability … Many, many small issues can disrupt the 3D printing process, such as poor calibration, or high heat or humidity.”
It’s true that 3-D printing can be time consuming, and any additional delays can trigger meltdowns in projects and kids alike. Quality concerns seem a bit premature, though. ThingMaker won’t hit shelves until this fall, and Mattel and Autodesk are good enough at what they do that their gadget probably deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Besides, Mattel can likely get away with a lower price on the machine by earning long-term business from repeat use. “Brands such as Barbie and Hot Wheels hold fantastic potential for Mattel to be able to entice consumers (whether children or parents) into continued purchases of filament,” says Kempton. And those established toys are just the gateway. ThingMaker ultimately wants to be able to make any, well, thing.
“I think if you look at the toy lines that are out there, our goal is to produce parts across the entire spectrum of play,” says Pressman. “Anything that you can imagine as a toy, I look at as something that would be amazing as a 3-D printed toy.” He sees cars and action figures as particularly fertile ground, but has also been pleasantly surprised by just how creative testers have gotten. The ThingMaker Design app has a dedicated jewelry section because designers had taken to constructing necklaces and bracelets out of action figure parts.
“’Ive seen people make entire vehicles out of parts that were originally intended to make action figures,” says Pressman, which sounds wonderful and a little bit terrifying.
It’s that sense of guided discovery that ThingMaker enables most of all. You don’t need to have a game plan going in; you can just match your favorite head with your favorite body and limbs and watch your new toy come to life. Importantly, the ThingMaker Design app will also work with any other 3-D printer that can read STL files. Likewise, the ThingMaker can 3-D print from sources other than ThingMaker Design. It’s purposefully open, in a way that can only help the fledgling industry as a whole.
“At this price point that Mattel has announced for the hardware, with an integrated software solution and an open platform, it really does make 3-D printing accessible not only to kids but to the general maker market out there,” says Pressman. “I think there’s an entire generation of artists and makers that haven’t had access to a 3-D printer, or haven’t really been brave enough to make the jump… Those people will be the people that probably figure out the next great thing 3-D printers can make, or the next cool prototype or application of the tech.”
ThingMaker might not be the ultimate validation of 3-D printing, but it’s arguably the most approachable. And what other 3-D printer is going to let you make race cars out of arms and wings with the touch of a button? Exactly.