DIY 3D printed toys are taking $60 million a year from major manufacturers, according to recent study
Jul 20, 2017 | By David
We’ve reported before on the ways that 3D printing is shaking up the toy industry, with giants like Lego and Hasbro making use of the technology to speed up their prototyping process and inspire designers’ creativity. However, a recent study carried out by engineers from Michigan Technological University suggests that the growth in the number of DIY 3D printer users printing off their own toys at home instead of buying them from stores might be soon be taking profits away from the established major manufacturers.
The research team was led by Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech, and it focused on how much a desktop 3-D printer could save consumers. The data suggests that, in total, over $60 million dollars a year in toy purchases is being saved. Compare this to the projected $135 billion dollar value of the toy market in 2020, and you will get an idea of the impact that 3D printing technology is having.
The study investigated the 100 most popular designs online. Results were gathered based on three different 3D printing materials which were used to analyze the potential costs of printing toys at home on an open source Lulzbot 3-D printer. The materials were standard commercial filament (spaghetti-like strands easily purchased online), pellet-extruded filament (a cheaper option to make filament at home), and post-consumer waste plastic (the plastic is converted to filament using a recyclebot). All filament types saved consumers more than 75 percent of the cost compared to buying the toy from a commercial outlet, with the recyclebot filament being particularly cost-effective, saving consumers more than 90 percent.
There was another major advantage of 3D printing technology, which was the ability to produce unique toys that were not commercially available. Customization is becoming more and more simple with 3D printing, and it also offers a kid-friendly potential for making a very specific type of toy that major manufacturers can’t compete with.
A case study with Lego blocks was also carried out, which showed that the official blocks can be easily reproduced in ABS filament, with acetone-smoothing giving them an extra level of accuracy. Huge savings are possible with Lego, as these are some of the pricier toys on the market. The study showed that a recyclebot-sourced, 3D printed block costs half a cent, over 6 times cheaper than an official Lego block. Savings were typically between 40 to 90 percent for 3D printed toys, even with complex items like chess sets, math puzzles, toy trucks, action figures and board games. The only situation where a 3D printed version of something was more expensive was where the quality of the print significantly surpassed available commercial options, which was particularly true for large and intricate costumes and accessories.
The increasing accessibility of 3D printers, with some FDM machines now available for under $100, means that toy companies will have to adapt fast if they want to stay ahead of the game. In the furniture realm, IKEA has already implemented a new policy in response to DIY 3D printing copies of its products, encouraging what it has labelled ‘IKEA hacks’. Pearce believes that toy manufacturers should take a leaf out of the Swedish behemoth’s immaculately designed book.
"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," Pearce says. "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."