I don't 3D print anything. I've never been tempted to. The printers are gigantic, they smell like weird melted plastic, and they take forever. I don't know where to buy spools of material. I'm lazy. But maybe I just need guidance.
I do remember making little rubber insect toys as a kid, and so did one of my colleagues: it was called Creepy Crawlers, or ThingMaker. It was an old Mattel brand. And now that's been rebooted as a 3D printer, coming out for $300 this fall. (International availability is unclear, but that roughly translates to £209 or AU$421.)
ThingMaker is a collaboration with Autodesk. That company, best known for 3D design software such as AutoCAD, 3ds Max and Maya, helped design the printer and its associated app for Mattel in the same way that Google worked with Mattel on its View-Master VR toy. And the message is simple: Mattel wants to make 3D printing as easy for your kids -- and maybe for you -- as building things out of Legos.
Dream it up, pop it out
It doesn't look like ThingMaker is significantly different than most 3D printers, but it does have an iOS and Android app designed to be kid-friendly. That's already available, and it's intended to help introduce concepts of design, making toys and other ideas that can be exported into 3D printer-ready files.
ThingMaker prints using spools of PLA (polylactic acid), a common biodegradable thermoplastic used by many 3D printers. It will possibly come with one or two spools of PLA, but it's not clear what specific types of materials it will be compatible with. Mattel showed a few types of printed samples using softer rubber-like plastics, glow-in-the-dark plastic and plastic that turns colors in daylight.
The toys ThingMaker prints are meant to interlock using ball-and-joint construction, making a line of interchangeable building blocks. Yes, these toys seem abstract and simple compared to big-name brand toys. A toy scorpion-crab thing sitting on Mattel's demo desk looked cool, Note, however, that bigger projects can take up to 10 hours to print.
But ultimately, none of those caveats matter for a product like this. This is for kids who are burgeoning "makers," looking to experiment with fun DIY projects and maybe learn a thing or two about 3D design along the way. Ultimately, if Mattel (and AutoDesk) can deliver approachable software and make sure that the spools of material remains reasonably affordable (think: printer ink), it may have a winner on its hands.
And the $300 starting point means that plenty of adults who have long been curious about 3D printing may be taking the plunge on this "toy," too.