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Thanks to 3D printing, the future of toys is faster and cheaper

Soon you could be making Baby Yoda figurines at home

By Glenn McDonald

Any parent of young children can tell you: There is nothing more astonishing — more compelling, more exhilarating — than stepping barefoot on a little plastic toy. It’s a profound experience, the kind that inspires curse words of superior potency and elegance.  

Good news: parents no longer have pay for this privilege by purchasing overpriced plastic toys at the big-box store. Thanks to improving 3D printing technology, we can now make toys at home, in the moment and on the cheap.

The problem

Kids like toys. And when it comes to their little plastic nothings, they prefer quantity over quality. This can mean clutter and cost for parents. On a larger scale, the industry requires massive fossil-fuel expenditures to manufacture, package, and transport all those cheap plastic toys.

The solution

Parents and kids can use 3D printers to make their own toys at home. Although not yet widely adopted, 3D printers for the home are getting more versatile and less expensive every year. Low-end household printers sell for under $200 now (high-end business models run $3,000 and up). Plastic filament reels — the “ink” of 3D printers — are around $20 per spool for typical home usage. Usually around the size of a large microwave oven, these printers build objects one layer at a time. Commercial software now makes it possible for parents to design objects for their kids — or for kids to design toys for themselves.

Toys are among the busiest DIY plastic-printing categories, including bathtub toys, action figures, model trucks, fidget spinners, and little plastic critters.

There’s already a massive DIY community online that swaps 3D-printing blueprints for everything from wall brackets and bottle openers to Baby Yoda. Toys are among the busiest DIY plastic-printing categories, including bathtub toys, action figures, model trucks, fidget spinners, and little plastic critters.

Pretty much anything small and plastic that you can buy, you can make at home more cheaply — sometimes a lot more cheaply. A recent study by Michigan Technological University analyzed the total cost of the 100 most popular toys at MyMiniFactory, an open-source design repository. By using the free designs and a standard home 3D printer, it found, consumers save more than 75 percent on average compared to the cost of comparable store-bought toys. If post-consumer recycled plastic is used as the filament, the savings go up to 90 percent.

Home toymaking saves resources and energy all around. Several popular, affordable plastic filaments are biodegradable and made from renewable resources such as corn. Because 3D printing is an additive process, it uses only the amount of plastic needed to make the toy. Wasted clippings, molds and packaging are largely eliminated. And, of course, printing your own toys means reduced fuel costs, compared to driving to the store for toys shipped from overseas. (According to The Economist, three-fourths of the world’s toys are still made in China.)

With 3D printing, kids can get hands-on experience in engineering and design. Educational packages for schools take children all the way through R&D, computer-aided modeling, and mini-manufacturing. Various kid-friendly retail bundles include software and hardware. Also, 3D printers can print replacement parts for lost or broken store-bought toys.

The downside

3D printed toys have to be relatively small and simple. Electronic components are out, unless you do your own “aftermarket” upgrades, and toys with complex moving parts are tricky. (But not impossible.)

The big picture

The toy industry is already hip to 3D printing — Hasbro has been making Hot Wheels this way for a while now — and the technology has been a major disruptor across all of manufacturing. In-store 3D printing kiosks are starting to pop up at some toy outlets. Toys “R” Us had deployed a pilot program just before it went under.

“As the industry grows, we’re going to see a lot more DIY manufacturing,” says engineering professor Joshua Pearce, co-author of the Michigan Tech study, in a statement issued with the study. “The evidence is just overwhelming that this makes sense from a consumers’ perspective.”

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Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

 

Illustration by Lorenzo Gritti

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