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20 3D PRINTERS 3D Printing: Friend or threat?

Customers don’t need to buy toys from shops anymore – they can make their own. But how will 3D printing affect our industry, and what opportunities do retailers and toy companies have? Lewis Tyler investigates…

3D PRINTERS are just like standard ink printers, except rather than producing a page, they can actually create physical objects.

Users can scan items or download schematics before bringing a new object into the physical world via the magic of 3D printing. It might sound like something from The Jetsons, but 3D printing is real, it is here today, and the technology is improving at a rapid pace.

The 3D printing process works similarly to a conventional ink printer, except it builds up layer after layer of wafer-thin plastic to create a whole object – or toy.

These printers are already small enough to fit in the home, or indeed the office, but basic models currently cost around £1,500. So how can 3D printing benefit toy companies or retailers? Well, the process of prototyping a toy can be made faster and cheaper using a 3D

printer. And how about manufacturing? Toy makers will soon be hosting their own manufacturing operations from the office. This is infinitely more versatile and faster than a traditional, mass produced injection moulded product which has to travel on a boat from China. It also alleviates costs and risks. But while 3D printing promises to change the world, it is potentially disruptive to business, to say the least. Imagine a world where people print their own toys at home. Well, we are living in that world now.


3D printers can produce all manner of objects, from toy cars to dolls and construction bricks to action figures…

ONE BENEFIT of 3D printing is personalisation – the creation of products unique to each customer. Online gifts retailer is one of the first to use 3D printing to create a highly desirable retail product – Personalised Superhero Action Figures. Obviously, Firebox is well aware of

the value of personalisation. So much so, it has established its own department, and appointed a head of personalisation, Paul Broomfield. He explains to ToyNews how the

product works: “It is really simple, the customer just sends us two passport- style headshot photos, one straight on and one side shot. We then change that into a 3D model of their head, and print it on a fancy 3D printer. Once printed, we put the head, along with

JULY 2012

the customer’s choice of Superhero body and the assembly instructions, into a box, and send it to the customer.”

I NEED A HERO Despite retailing at a premium £79.99, the product has been a sell out success. After all, who doesn’t want to be a superhero? Before 3D printing, what lengths would the consumer have gone to get an action figure of themselves (short of becoming a wrestler)? As Broomfield says: “It brings back all those fond memories and games you played as a kid. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t make my Personalised Superman fly around the office and make ‘kapow’ and ‘swoosh’ noises when it was first created.”

So just how good is it? Broomfield admits: “Currently, the Action Figures range available is not as good as say traditional injection moulding. That will change though…”

He adds that soon it will be practical to make 3D printed consumer goods which will be indistinguishable from something made in a proper factory. “This technology is mind-blowing – with the advances that are happening every day, it might not be long before every home has a 3D printer,” Broomfield explains. He adds that Firebox is “looking into loads of ideas” for more personalised, 3D printed products. Elsewhere, Makie is a new toy company which lets users log onto its website,, to create

digital avatars. Customers then have the option of purchasing these in the form of a real life 3D printed plastic doll. So far 1,846 Makies have been created virtually, and 100 orders for the custom dolls have been placed. Users can customise their avatar’s

eyes, nose, mouth, hair, the width of the smile and even the shape of the hands. The 3D printing process then lets Makie produce near perfect physical versions of the virtual avatars from their London office. Hair, clothing and accessories are then added to complete the product. What’s more, 3D printing means that dolls like Makies can be made without the potential time constraints and waste constraints associated with injection moulding.

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