The toy and game market is projected to be worth about $135 billion by 2020. Yet, the more do-it-yourself makers and tinkers use 3-D printers to create their own DIY toys, the more these homemade objects may eat into this revenue.
Cheap, plastic toys are in fashion more than ever before with the proliferation of affordable 3-D printers and do-it-yourself (DIY) makers that use open source designs to create their own toys, with some even selling them for a profit.
A team of engineers from Michigan Technological University and London-based MyMiniFactory have studied how these 3-D printers may impact the toy market in the coming years and believe as the industry grows more and more DIY toys will be available, potentially saving money for consumers.
MyMiniFactory is one of numerous repositories where people freely share 3-D printable designs online. In the study, they investigated 100 of the most popular downloaded designs looking at three different printing materials—commercial filament, pellet-extruded filament and post-consumer waste plastic, converted to filament using a recyclebot.
These filament types save consumers more than 75% of the cost of commercial toys and the recyclebot filament saved more than 90%. Just using the data from 100 toys, people offset $60 million per year in toy purchases, researchers say.
"It's one thing to buy a toy from a store or get a commodity toy for your children," says Joshua Pearce, a professor of materials science and electrical engineering at Michigan Tech. "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."
Leggo My Lego
Legos are one of the most expensive toys. Naturally, they have become one of the most common DIY manufacturing toys.
With DIY toys, how well the objects stack up against the real thing is a paramount necessity. Acetone-smoothing has effectively made the 3-D printed versions look like the real deal. And they are much cheaper: While Lego blocks costs six cents and generic blocks cost three cents, a recyclebot-sourced 3-D printed block is half a cent.
Legos are not the only toys that allow for savings: Complex toys such as chess sets, math puzzles, toy trucks, action figures and board games can save parents between 40% and 90%. The only time 3-D printed toys did not save money was when the quality of the 3-D print significantly surpassed commercial options such as in costumes or accessories used in cosplay.
Researchers say 3-D printing is already having an impact on the toy industry and it shows no sign of slowing as 3-D printers become cheaper and more widely available. To stave off this competition, researchers say toy makers need to encourage 3-D printing much like Ikea has with its “Ikea hacks” furniture projects.
“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."