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3-D Printing Could Revolutionize Toy Manufacturing
October 17, 2017

With the approach of the holiday season, retail outlets across the country are gearing up to provide the widest selection of children’s toys possible. But toy manufacturers are now facing a real challenge as dominance in the marketplace is threatened by a new technological advance: the manufacture of inexpensive, plastic toys created through 3-D printing where no manufacturer is required.

Each plastic building block is made of a different plastic and process; 3-D printing has the potential to disrupt conventional toy production, making it cheaper to make toys at home. Credit: Joshua Pearce.

Since its introduction, much of society has regarded 3-D printing as a novel and interesting concept, but many people have often considered 3-D printers to be not much more than simply toys themselves. However, with the toy and game market projected to be $135 billion by 2020, do-it-yourself (DIY) manufacturing—creating products with a 3-D printer using open source designs from a free online repository—is anticipated to have a significant impact on the overall toy industry.

According to information provided by Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech), just how much money consumers could save with the widespread use of desktop 3-D printers was the focus of research led by Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech.

“The 3-D printing industry is now dominated by small, low-cost printers and as the industry grows we’re going to see a lot more DIY manufacturing,” Prof. Pearce says. “The evidence is just overwhelming that this makes sense from a consumers’ perspective.”

Detailing their results in a paper published in the journal Technologies, the Michigan Tech researchers, working with the London-based company MyMiniFactory, investigated the 100 most popular downloaded designs from MyMiniFactory, one of dozens of repositories where people freely share 3-D printable designs online. They used three different printing materials to analyze the potential costs of printing on an open source Lulzbot 3-D printer—commercial filament (spaghetti-like strands easily purchased online), pellet-extruded filament (cheaper option to make filament at home), and post-consumer waste plastic (converted to filament using a recyclebot).

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

Prof. Pearce also made note of an important added value that emerged during the research: the ability to make novel toys and games that are not commercially available.

“It’s one thing to buy a toy from a store or get a commodity toy for your children. It’s perhaps more valuable to get that exact, specific toy that your kid really wants that you can either design yourself or download and customize on your computer and print at home,” Prof. Pearce said.

Prof. Pearce noted that the data indicates that 3-D printing is already having an impact on the industry and it will only grow as 3-D printers become more widespread. He suggests that the best route for toy and game companies is embracing 3-D printing much like Ikea encouraged “Ikea hacks” with its furniture.

“One way toy companies might adapt is open-sourcing some of the designs of the toys themselves and focusing on currently unprintable components or openly encouraging the maker community and open-source community to design accessories or add-ons to commercial toys to make their toys more valuable,” Prof. Pearce suggested. “This is already happening – there are literally millions of free designs. Distributed home manufacturing is the future for toys but also many other products. It would be a big mistake to assume 3-D printers are just toys.”

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