A whole new toy market is evolving as computer-aided design and manufacturing meet the creative ideas of consumers.
3-D printing technology is advancing rapidly, allowing more consumers the freedom to make toys from spools of plastic filament. They can dream up their own designs or choose from existing databases and use the CAD files to control a printer that lays down tiny plastic blobs layer by layer. Complex items can be 3-D printed on readily available desktop printers that can be purchased for as little as $500.
“It's almost magical what 3-D printing can do,” said Hilmar Gunnarsson, a manager in the consumer and 3-D printing division of professional and consumer software developer Autodesk Inc. in a phone interview. “It brings imagination to life, so that people aren't just consumers of what is on the shelf.”
3-D printing is unlikely to supplant traditional toy production anytime soon. The toy market is too big — about $20 billion a year in North America — and many consumers can't be bothered to master digital technologies for creating objects that are, well, just toys. But 3-D printing is establishing a new toy universe that promises to be much bigger than other pursuits that appeal to do-it-yourself hobbyists, or “makers” in the jargon of the 3-D printing world.
Toy majors can't ignore this encroachment on their traditional turf and are forming alliances with companies possessing digital expertise in order to partake in the 3-D revolution.
Mattel, for example, teamed up with Autodesk earlier this year “to power the Mattel toy line with cutting-edge 3-D design and 3-D printing technology,” the toy giant said in April. New apps under development by the partners will allow consumers to dream up their own toys, then design and customize them to make them real through 3-D printing. Mattel says the new apps will allow kids to learn while they play, giving them pride in accomplishment while they explore their creativity and imagination.
“Technology is changing daily and by harnessing Mattel's expertise in play and Autodesk's expertise with creative apps and 3-D printing, we're able to offer a new kind of 3-D design experience, continuing the Mattel legacy of inspiring imagination and creativity,” noted Doug Wadleigh, senior vice president and global brand manager for Mattel's Toy Box unit.
Mattel said along with the new apps, it will dedicate an online hub for its 3-D printing initiatives. Mattel and Autodesk declined to describe the progress the two firms have made so far, but Gunnarsson did say Autodesk generally strives to make more content available, to make 3-D printing easier for consumers and to allow design of increasingly complex printed components.
“Autodesk's Tinkerplay is a free app designed for kids of all ages that lets them design and customize toy characters digitally before having them 3-D printed,” explained Autodesk spokeswoman Jill McChesney. Users can drag and drop interchangeable parts to make custom creations and the parts are optimized for 3-D printing as ready-to-play characters and creatures.
Tinkerplay is one of several Autodesk apps appealing to consumers. Autodesk got into consumer apps about five years ago after a long history of developing CAD software for professional markets such as movies and architecture. It now has a suite of consumer-oriented apps including apps for do-it-yourself projects, photo editing, artwork and home design. Its Tinkercad apps are easy-to-use, browser-based 3-D design and modeling tools. Autodesk bought the Tinkercad business in 2013, two years after Tinkercad founders brought their design platform to the general public. Tinkercad now boasts more than 4 million designs and hundreds more are added daily. In total, Autodesk counts 250 million users worldwide for its suite of consumer apps. Tinkerplay is under the Tinkercad umbrella.
My Little 3-D Printer?
Hasbro Inc. too is staking out a space in the 3-D printed toy universe. Last year the toy major partnered with 3-D marketplace and community company Shapeways to launch a website called SuperFanArt. The website allows consumers to showcase their artwork inspired by Hasbro brands and sell their 3-D printed designs.
SuperFanArt started with Hasbro's My Little Pony franchise, which has more than 200 licensees worldwide. Hasbro fans have been able to print Little Poly figurines — as many as 900 different ones are possible — since the website started up in 2014. Hasbro has been adding other brands since then.
3-D printing was invented by a U.S. engineer, Chuck Hull in 1983, and was soon adopted by some toy companies to quickly and cheaply make prototypes before committing to expensive scale-up to commercial production.
Production-scale use of 3-D printing is too cost-prohibitive but the technology is finding a niche in special made-to-order toys. One toy company in London is already using 3-D printing to commercially produce dolls. MakieWorld Ltd. allows kids to customize the company's standard doll by designing facial features, hair color, etc. MakieWorld then has the doll 3-D-printed overnight in nylon and then shipped.
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