3D printing is sweeping the toy industry off the shelves

Cheap plastic toys, no maker needed. The toys and games market in 2020 is expected to reach $135 billion, and 3D printing is bringing those profits home.

People have laughed at the fact that 3D printers are just toys in themselves. But they probably didn’t realize how much money we made with the toys. Do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturing – making goods at home with a 3D printer using open-source designs from a free online repository – has a multi-million dollar impact on the whole of the toy industry.

A team of engineers from Michigan Technological University and the London-based MyMiniFactory published their results on the subject in Technologies (DOI: 10.3390/technologies5030045) this week.

More than monopoly money

The research team, led by Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech, focused on the cost savings a desktop 3D printer could save consumers.

“The 3D printing industry is now dominated by small, low cost printers and as the industry grows we are going to see a lot more DIY manufacturing,” says Pearce. “The evidence is simply overwhelming that it makes sense from a consumer perspective.”

To dig deeper into the potential savings, the study looks at the 100 most popular uploaded designs from MyMiniFactory, which is one of dozens of repositories where people freely share 3D printable designs online. They used three different printing materials to analyze the potential costs of printing on an open-source Lulzbot 3D printer: commercial filament (spaghetti-like filaments easily purchased online), extruded pellet filament (cheaper option for making filament at home), and post-consumer plastic waste (converted into filament using a recycling robot).

When a commercially available toy was available for comparison, all filament types saved consumers over 75% of the cost, and the recyclebot filament saved over 90%. In total, and using data from just 100 toys (less than one percent of MyMiniFactory’s repository), people clear $60 million a year in toy purchases.

For Pearce, an important added value has also emerged: the ability to manufacture new toys and games that are not commercially available.

“It’s one thing to buy a toy from a store or get a basic toy for your kids. Perhaps it’s more valuable to get that precise, specific toy that your kid really wants you to be able to design yourself or download and customize on your computer and print at home.”Joshua Pearce

Legos, prints and generics

Pearce and his team also used case studies to dig deeper into the potential impacts of 3D printing and what might entice consumers to use DIY manufacturing. They built an example using one of the world’s most famous and beloved plastic toys.

“As a parent, Legos are expensive. Every parent knows they can’t be found at garage sales; everyone stores them like they’re gold,” Pearce says. “Now you can create custom compatible blocks and have the same kind of fun while playing with something you make yourself.”

A key aspect of DIY crafting is judging how well the home-printed version matches the store-bought version. With the building blocks, an acetone smoothing went a long way in making the recycled ABS plastic look like the brand name and generic versions, with a big drop in price. A standard Lego block costs six cents; the credits, three hundred; and a 3D printed block from a recyclebot costs half a cent.

The Save the Planet board game is an adaptable and customizable open-source cooperative game, making it an educational tool that grows with children and allows creative freedom with everything from “Good Deeds” cards to personalized game figurines. The total cost with 2D and 3D printing came to $2.89.

And as The Lego Movie would have us believe, playing with building blocks isn’t about following instructions, it’s about inventing and creating. There are already hundreds of different types of user-designed children’s blocks. Although, as most parents probably think, it doesn’t hurt to save a few pennies along the way.

Pearce’s team has achieved significant cost savings, typically between 40 and 90 percent, even with complex toys like chess sets, math puzzles, toy trucks, action figures, and board games. The only instances where 3D printing did not save money occurred when the quality of the 3D print far exceeded the quality of commercial options; this was especially true for printing large and complex costumes and props that people use in cosplay to dress up as characters from movies, TV shows, and video games.

Toy and game hacks

Pearce says the data indicates that 3D printing is already having an impact on the industry, and it will only grow as 3D printers become more mainstream. He suggests the best path for toy and game companies is to embrace 3D printing, just as Ikea has encouraged “Ikea hacks” with its furniture.

“One way toy companies could adapt is to open up some of the designs of the toys themselves and focus on currently unprintable components or openly encourage the maker community and the open source community to design accessories. or add-ons to commercial toys to make their toys more valuable,” Pearce says. “It already is — there are literally millions of free designs out there. Distributed home manufacturing is the future of toys, but also many other products. It would be a big mistake to assume that 3D printers are just toys.”

The full article is available for free: Emily E. Petersen, Romain W. Kidd, Joshua M. Pearce, Impact of DIY Home Manufacturing with 3-D Printing on the Toy and Game Market. Technologies

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and enrolls more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the top universities in the nation for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate programs in science and technology, engineering, computer science, forestry, business and economics, health professions, science humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is located a few miles from Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, providing year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.

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