The two things holding 3D printers back from mainstream adoption is cost and relative difficulty of use. While they have been going down in price, it looks like both of those problems will finally be solved in 2016 — and everyone under the age of 13 stands to benefit the most. Late this year, Mattel will start selling the ThingMaker, a kid-friendly 3D printer that can bring any toy a kid imagines to life. Well, as long as it’s made out of PLA filament, anyway.
The printer itself isn’t too special — it’s your standard PLA filament 3D printer, with a red, retro exterior that may be a reference to the ThingMaker name, an old Mattel brand that’s being dusted off after decades of dormancy. As with most printers, there’s also a transparent window that shows kids what’s going on while their parts or toys are being printed. In the interest of safety, the door locks during use and the nozzle will be lifted up after use, as it will be hot to the touch.
The difference between the ThingMaker and every other 3D printer is its companion app, ThingMaker Design. Several prepackaged templates are available for kids to choose from. Once they find something they like, they can switch up the colors, textures, or poses of their new toy before sending it to the printer. That’s just the beginning, though — kids can also print interlocking parts with sockets to build larger toys, with room in the app to design toys from the ground up. The app was made in partnership with AutoDesk, one of the top CAD programs available and one that is frequently used to create 3D printing designs for grown-up 3D printers.
Despite only using one kind of plastic, the ThingMaker can create pretty much whatever toy a kid imagines — that’s the magic of 3D printing. They’ll be able to design and print their own race cars, dolls, poseable action figures, or even plastic jewelry. It’s kind of rare to find a tech toy that leaves this much to the kids’ imaginations, which makes ThingMaker pretty compelling. If nothing else, just pitch it to kids as Minecraft, but in real life — they’ll get on board.
This won’t be the only kid-friendly 3D printer this year, either. ToyBox is doing something similar, although there’s less of an emphasis on kids creating their own toy designs. That partnership with AutoDesk looks like it’s allowed Mattel to put a lot of polish on the ThingMaker Design app, leaving the learning curve very low for kids and parents who might not be familiar with the world of 3D printing.
One last bit of good news for everyone — PLA filament, the only material ThingMaker will use for now, is completely biodegradable. Granted, it still takes some time for that process to happen, but at the very least if your kids go nuts and create hundreds of plastic toys that they play with once or twice each, you can rest easy knowing your kids haven’t created their own mini-landfill.
The ThingMaker will retail for $300 when it comes out sometime this fall. The ThingMaker Design app will be available for iOS and Android, and can be used with most 3D printers, not just the ThingMaker.