Toymakers once made models by hand, but 3-D printing has changed all that. Deep down we all know it: of all the things that 3D printing can, and will, do, one of the first industries where the mass public will come to grips with its full potential for customization is toys.
Welcome to the brave new world of toys and collectables, in which products can be made on spec by anyone with access to a 3D printer. You could be forgiven for thinking this is still more sci-fi than fact - “The cost is currently prohibitive,” says NPD analyst Frédérique Tutt - but fast forward a few years and 3D printing will have hit the mainstream.
This transformation recalls the transition from illustration and painting to the age of photography, when the impression of a thing could be replaced by a representation of it that was in some sense more faithful, not to mention easier to produce and mass distribute. The difference is that 3D scanning and 3D printing have arrived in the age of computers, a time when all media, including photos, are endlessly manipulable.
Just last month, Lego told the Financial Times it was considering the implications of 3D printing. Meanwhile, Mackinsey has estimated that in the US, 3D printing could generate up to $300bn in sales of consumer products, including toys, by 2025, forecasting that the capability for retailers “to let customers tailor products such as toys” will become an important factor in 21st-century retailing.
Mattel’s major rival Hasbro is certainly taking 3D printing seriously. Later this year, the company will be working with specialist 3D Systems to develop “creative play experiences powered by 3D printing”. 3D Systems has recently acquired Digital PlaySpace, a company whose flagship product allows users to design dolls’ houses online, and then print furniture.