Digital Life

Mattel's ThingMaker 3D printer will give kids toys on tap

New York: When Mattel debuted ThingMaker in the 1960s, 3D printing was still decades away. As a primitive "at-home maker device," it let kids produce bug-like Creepy Crawlers, mini-dragons, flowers and other small toys by pouring liquid plastic into special moulds, which were then heated up and cooled.

Now Mattel, in collaboration with Autodesk, is resurrecting ThingMaker as a $299.99, family-friendly, 21st century 3D printer. Mattel made the announcement in advance of the Toy Fair trade show, which kicks off in Manhattan this weekend.

A full-size, non-working replica of the printer, which works with a 3D printing app for iOS and Android - if not for its bold orange casing - could be mistaken for a funky-looking microwave oven.

Consumers can customise toy fairies, dolls, dinosaurs, robots, skeletons and jewellery (among countless other plastic things) inside the ThingMaker app, which supplies templates and a palette of drag-and-drop parts that you can assemble together on screen before tapping the print button. Parts are printed in batches; for safety purposes, the printer door automatically locks when printing starts.

"All the physical behaviours are as it would be when it was actually printed out, so you can get an idea for how it is going to mechanically move and what the limits of all the joints and sockets that you create are," says Dan Pressman, creative director at Autodesk.  You pick the individual object colours in the app as well; come print time, separate jobs print each batch of colours.

The app is live now and can be used to design items for other standard 3D printers as well. But Mattel's new 3D printer won't be released until October, but you can pre-order it on Amazon now.

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"We're going to use these seven months to really learn and gain analytics of how people are using it," says Aslan Appleman, a senior director at Mattel.

For all their potential, and their use for industrial, professional, and hobbyist purposes, 3D printers have been slow to catch on in the home. Such printers have generally been too pricey, too slow and too complicated, and the motives for owning one have eluded most consumers.

Mattel comes at it as a toymaker, of course, but the company is viewing its upcoming 3D printer more as a consumer electronics product than a toy per se. In fact, the printer is designed for users ages 13 and up. (The small printed parts are rated as safe toys for children three years old and up.) Beyond Amazon, Mattel hasn't finalised its distribution strategy.

Mattel has been tracking the evolution of 3D printing for awhile now. Appleman says, "We think this is the perfect time for us to come out in the market with a product that's disruptive in our opinion."

Time will tell if ThingMaker can conjure up the same nostalgic appeal with newer technology. (It was almost a year ago that Mattel teamed up with Google to produce a Google Cardboard-based version of the ViewMaster stereoscopic viewer.)

Mattel's printer will rely on standard PLA (Polylactic Acid) filament just like other 3D printers do. Mattel hasn't announced the precise branded colours it may make available or pricing for the filament, but the printer is likely to come with at least one spool, and you'll be able to use standard filament sold by third parties. (You can find spools online today for around $23.)

"Our thought is we want to make this open to makers," Appleman says. "What we want to highlight is the ThinkMaker ecosystem."

How much you can print off a single spool will vary with the size and type of objects printed . Rough estimate: with an average 1 kilogram spool of filament, you can print up to 20 figures, more than 30 jewellery items or about 100 rings.

There's no word yet on if or when you'll be able to print Barbie or Hot Wheels or other famous Mattel toys.

"Obviously we have quite a few iconic brands in our portfolio as well as access to partner brands. You can imagine that's part of our long term strategy," Appleman says

Printing itself will not be a quick process. A small ring may take 30 minutes to print; a large toy could take six to eight hours.

"We think it's pretty magical to watch these things being printed but after a while you don't want to sit there for hours," Appleman says. "For bigger prints, click print before [you] go to bed and wake up to a brand new toy."

USA Today​

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