Science fiction is catching up with us and the toy industry is finding itself on the cusp of a new dimension. As 3D printing edges closer to consumer reality, Robert Hutchins looks at how the medium could be shaping the future of toys
Shell suits, Tom Selleck’s glorious moustache and Bob Geldof’s first ever Band Aid single: the year 1984 has a lot to answer for.
And with so much keeping civilization pre- occupied, it’s no surprise that the advent of 3D printing went relatively unrecognised.
But from a small pocket of Colorado, inventor Charles Hull gave rise to stereolithography, the first glimpse of toy manufacturing of the future.
Thankfully, 30 years on, Hull has managed to find a snappier title for the concept and today his company, 3D Systems is one of many 3D printing specialists making headway in bringing consumers and retailers alike closer to the process of bespoke product making.
Since the launch of the first 3D print consumer experience, allowing fans to become their favourite Star Wars character in 2012, the toy industry has been paying particular attention.
Last year marked perhaps the biggest stride in toy-3D printing relations, when major retailers and manufacturers – including Toys R Us and Hasbro – took the leap to embrace the medium.
To celebrate Hasbro’s Super Hero month in September 2014, the toy giant teamed with 3D printing company, 3D Plus Me to launch its Super Awesome Me campaign, allowing fans to become action figures of their favourite super heroes.
Quite literally changing the face of action figures at retail, the campaign allowed fans to use in- store 3D printing services to place their own faces on Iron Man or Captain America action figures.
The initiative was met with positive reaction from consumers, but as the demand for customised toy buying increases, Hasbro believes this is only the tip of the iceberg for the future of 3D printing.
“It’s clear that today’s consumer wants to personalise their play and Hasbro is enthusiastic about providing fans with new ways to interact with their favourite characters and create unique, custom experiences,” Hasbro’s senior director of global marketing, Kenny Davis tells ToyNews.
The firm also recently partnered with Shapeways to launch SuperFan Art, an initiative allowing consumers to create their own toys based on Hasbro brands, including My Little Pony.
“There is an increasing demand for open source content and customisation within the toy industry,” continues Davis. “These are two things that have proven important to the consumer and as a result we are seeing a lot of creativity and innovation.
“SuperFan Art and Super Awesome Me address that need and empower fans to create unique play experiences, putting our brands at the forefront of an exciting new world.”
Meanwhile, Toys R Us has teamed with PieceMaker Technologies to pilot in- store 3D printing services in two of its US stores.
The two sites are in the process of testing the relationship between consumers and bespoke toys with the PieceMaker Factory programme, allowing shoppers to create their own custom charms, key chains and more, all in-store.
“The general idea is that people can start creating inventory on demand,” explains Arden Rosenblatt, CEO and co-founder of PieceMaker. “Shoppers can now take a meaningful role in the design of the products they buy through a simple and engaging touchscreen process, all in less than 30 minutes.”
While Rosenblatt champions the emerging process as a way of eliminating the traditional supply chains to create novel experiences for consumers, as well as ‘dramatically reducing costs”, he notes that 3D printing is far from an attack on the industry.
“In-store 3D printing is the future of manufacturing, customisation and on demand toys,” he says. “However, the toy industry isn’t suddenly going to go out of business. I believe we will see companies and 3D printing technology working together to make something a little better.”
Back in the UK, MakieLab’s range of customisable, 3D printed Makie Dolls made its debut in Hamleys last summer. Created by toy inventor, Alice Taylor, the range has already won an armload of awards, including Toy of the Year as well as receiving a BAFTA nomination.
An innovative step in consumer manufacturing, the brand allows young fans to create their own avatar using an online ‘factory’, the user can then pay to have their creation printed and sent to them as a bespoke doll.
The MakieLab team now enjoys success on a global scale, with in-store presence across multiple territories, including the US and Kuwait.
“The toy industry has been super pro 3D printing since day one,” Taylor tells ToyNews. “It seems to be a mixture of delight that someone has ‘gone and done it’ and delight that it ‘can be done.’
“There is no doubt that 3D printing will be part of the toy industry forever, the power of customisation is immense. And it is such early doors, too.”
It is not only the process of creating bespoke toys that is igniting imaginations across the world, but the in-store theatre it also provides brick and mortar retailers.
Kuwait toy chain, Fantasy World Toys has recently embarked on a partnership with MakieLab.
“3D printing is becoming a major deal in the toy industry and that’s why it is attracting major retailers to adopt this concept,” says Yousef Haddad, marketing manager at Fantasy World Toys. “We are proud to be the first retailer in the Middle East to introduce the first printed toys to our customers, and with the current hype surrounding 3D printing, customers are vey keen on experiencing Makie Dolls.”
There is no doubt that – owing to growing media interest – 3D printing is whipping up somewhat of a following. But unlike the industry’s many passing fads, Haddad believes that 3D printing has the potential to stick around.
“I believe that the possibilities are endless,” he adds. “And with the continuous development and investment put into this technology, we are looking at a bright future and a major growth where every forward thinking retailer will play a vital part.”
So, what’s next for the world of 3D toy printing? With such emphasis on personalisation and customisation, and with more and more initiatives making the process more widely accessible, perhaps that question is something only the imaginations of the consumer can answer.