3D Printing: Offering Toy Inventors New Ways to Bring their Ideas to Life

This article is the third in a series that TIA is publishing over the course of May in celebration of National Inventors Month.

May 20, 2014 | For toy inventors and designers, waiting for a factory to bring their creations into physical being could be a thing of the past. In today’s world, inventors can sit down at a computer, design a new plaything, and watch as with the click of a button a desktop printer spits out the fully formed toy.

This is the power of 3D printing, an evolving technology that many in the children’s product and entertainment space believe will revolutionize how toys can be made.

Read TIA’s 3D printing trend report, which recaps of some of the insights shared at the 2014 Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo, held this past April in New York City.

What exactly is 3D printing? It’s an additive process in which a specialized printer lays down thin layers of material, and continues to build up those layers to create a fully 3-dimensional object. The technology was invented by American engineer Chuck Hull in 1983, and has since been incorporated by early adopters into industry practices. Many toy companies now rely on 3D printers to quickly and inexpensively create prototypes before they produce large toy batches via traditional manufacturing methods.  

But more and more toy inventors, recognizing the technology’s unique benefits, are using 3D printing not just for prototyping but for final production as well.

London-based toy company MakieLab has harnessed 3D printing technology to offer Makies: 10-inch dolls that can be custom-designed online — down to details like its hair and skin color, eye and nose shape and clothing, then 3D printed overnight and shipped to children around the world. 

“For indie toymakers, it's great: you can dive in and make a toy — and test the market — without having to line up factories,” said MakieLab Co-Founder Alice Taylor, noting that the immediacy of short product runs lets her team stay agile. “We can tweak our products as we go: iterative ongoing changes, A/B testing, that's all possible.”

Avoiding the risk of producing large quantities of a toy that the in end may not sell well, toymakers can 3D print on demand, effectively eliminating the burden of inventory.   

“No waste! No warehousing!” Taylor exclaimed.

3D printing can also help fledgling toy companies keep production costs down, since traditional manufacturing is often not economical for startups looking to make limited product runs. Toymakers who typically get small purchase orders can make the toys themselves on desktop printers, and as distribution expands, begin to outsource larger orders to 3D printing services like Shapeways, i.materialise and others.

But as an emerging technology, there are some downsides to 3D printing. While the quality of 3D printed objects continues to quickly improve, the range of usable materials is still limited: plastic is by far the most common and is available in certain types, although select printers can also work with metals, ceramic, and wood.

Cost and speed can also pose challenges. It’s true that 3D printers can produce small quantities quickly and relatively inexpensively, but once toymakers start to look at mass production, traditional manufacturing, like injection molding, is still likely the faster and cheaper option.

One of biggest costs associated with 3D printing is the price of the printers themselves. When the technology first hit the market, printers carried a hefty price tag … and some still do: the range tops out at about $15,000. But over the years the cost has dropped significantly, with the average price hovering at around $1,500 and the lowest at $300.

“I’m astonished at how well the lower-range ones do print out,” said Kelley Studio owner Peter Kelley, a toy designer who has worked in 3D modeling for 15 years. “And as time goes on, we’re going to be getting a much cheaper, better printer.”

With printers becoming more affordable and 3d design software becoming more user-friendly, many see the technology heading toward mainstream adoption. 

“3D printing is one of those transformational technologies that will creative whole new entertainment experiences, much like the mobile device did for games,” said Steve Lettieri, vice president of business development and licensing for IMAGIMOD.

Read TIA’s article about how today’s toy inventors are tapping into the power of crowdfunding.

The company recently launched a Kickstarter campaign for Mech Makers, an iOS app that lets consumers customize robot action figures (choosing their parts, colors and positions) and then 3D print their mech through the company or at home.  

“3D printing offers some really unique potential, but the one we feel really strongly about is consumers being able to customize and personalize things,” Lettieri added. On-track with the popularity of custom-built playthings, one of this year’s strongest toy trends, “People personalize everything, from their phone case to their music playlists. We think it’s a natural step for toys and games and entertainment to move in that direction, and 3D printing offers a lot of potential to amplify that.”

They’re not alone in their thinking: in February of this year, Hasbro announced a new partnership with 3D Systems to develop and deliver innovative play experiences powered by 3D printing.

Access to 3D printing continues to expand for both consumers and toy inventors. 3D Hubs, an international network of people who own 3D printers that lets makers locally crowdsource their print jobs, has swelled to nearly 5,000 print locations. And this past April, 3D Systems said they’ll be teaming up with Staples to offer pilot 3D printing services in New York and L.A.

So, as 3D printing becomes increasingly available and affordable, toy inventors and designers will be empowered by the technology.  They stand to see the time from inspiration to creation — having something real that they can see, feel and interact with — go from months to minutes and their total costs for production drop from dollars to dimes.

Resources tailored for toy inventors and designers can be found on the TIA website.