5 Ways 3D printing Can Benefit the Toy Industry

When thinking of 3D printing, the technology’s potential for the toy industry may not be the first thing that springs to mind. However, in today’s consumer-driven landscape, where maintaining a competitive advantage is a key concern for toy companies, 3D printing offers several benefits, including faster time to market, greater design customisation and the potential to create new business models. 
 

#1 Prototyping

Before launching a new product into the market, a number of steps are required to transform a concept or idea into the final, physical product. Prototyping is a vital stage in this process, giving designers important insights as to how a toy will look and function. To this end, 3D printing is the ideal prototyping method for creating functional, visual prototypes rapidly and cost-effectively.  
 
Toy designers can use 3D printing to create functional models to test and validate among potential users and distributors. This helps to determine the requirements for the final product. Importantly, 3D printing enables designers to produce multiple prototypes in a very short time – meaning that extensive feedback can be used to formulate the final requirements. The iterative potential of 3D printing therefore enables greater experimentation, leading to greater product innovation, and ultimately better toys.
 
There are several 3D printing technologies that manufacturers can opt for to meet prototyping needs. For the toy industry, which generally requires a high level of accuracy and realistic visual representation, material jetting can be a good match. In addition to a high level of detail, material jetting is also notable for its multi-material capabilities. This means that toy prototypes created with this technology can simulate a wide range of properties such as rigidity, flexibility, opaqueness and transparency, creating a look close to the final product. Other technologies, like SLS, may also be used to prototype toys with moving and interlocking parts.
 
3D printing reduces prototyping time, as it doesn’t require moulds for multiple design iterations. 3D printed prototype toys can be tested for functionality and safety, and the necessary design improvements can be quickly and easily incorporated into the final product design. This way, 3D printing significantly speeds up time-to-market for new toys.
 
 

#2 Mass customisation

You’ll no doubt be familiar with the concept behind the Build-A-Bear Workshop, an American retailer that allows customers to create their own stuffed animals tailored to their preferences. This is just one example of how customisation can be leveraged by the toy industry to create personalised products for consumers. 
 
However, as toys are typically mass-produced, developing a business model that combines economies of scale with the flexibility of bespoke toys is challenging. Here is where 3D printing can help.
 
Producing custom toys with traditional manufacturing methods like injection moulding or casting is inherently impractical, due to the length of time needed to create a mould and the high tooling costs involved.  In this scenario, the costs and time required to produce customised toys are not justified by the typically low production volumes experienced. 
 
3D printing can be used instead to alleviate the pain-points of tooling production. By 3D printing moulds, toy manufacturers will be able to create more complex, personalised mould designs and produce them much faster and at an affordable price. 
 

#3 Customer relationship building

3D printing opens up the opportunity for toymakers to interact with their customers and build a stronger relationship within their customer community. To adapt a strategy used by LEGO, toy companies could allow would-be designers to submit their 3D designs with the promise of 3D printing the best ones for a limited time. 
 
Hasbro LogoHasbro is one illustration of using 3D printing to build their customer community. In 2014, 3D printing service provider Shapeways launched a collaboration with Hasbro to encourage designers to create and sell 3D designs using Hasbro brands. The online platform, called SuperFanArt, allows designers to promote and sell their designs to other customers, following approval by Hasbro. In this way, Hasbro welcomed the opportunity for fans to legally share, buy and customise Hasbro property, creating a much closer relationship between customers and the brand.  

#4 New business models

The disruptive force of 3D printing can help to uncover new business models for the digital age. This includes the ability to better serve niche markets which, due to lack of commercial viability, would other not be considered. 
 
The H2020 iBUS project is one example of a new digital business model that integrates 3D printing into the supply chain for toy manufacturing and enables the production of customised toys. Through the combination of 3D printing and traditional manufacturing, the iBus project seeks to locally produce bespoke toys in small volumes.

#5 New toys

As the toy industry welcomes the increase of “STEM toys”, 3D printing may find another good use in the sector. The term refers to toys designed with a pedagogical approach in mind, helping children to develop skills in the core areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. For toy manufacturers, the potential is vast: the ability to sell child-friendly 3D printers that allow children to design, print and create their own toys – a good way of introducing them to the world of engineering and technology.
 

The impact of consumer 3D printing on the toy industry

Much has been said about 3D printing encouraging consumers to adopt a ‘DIY’ approach to manufacturing toys – essentially using CAD files to produce the toys themselves. This idea is also supported by the growing use of online platforms, like MyMiniFactory or Thingiverse, which allow consumers to share 3D printable designs and 3D print toys at home or through a 3D printing service provider.
 
But how much does this pose a threat to the toy industry in reality?
 
Last year, research from Michigan Technological University suggested that consumers could save $60 million per year in toy purchases by 3D printing them. However, for the industry, which was worth more than $85 billion in 2017, this number doesn’t seem to be that threatening. Add the fact that the consumer 3D printing bubble has burst, it seems that 3D printing toys at home won’t have any noticeable effect on the global toy market in the near future.
 
Nonetheless, the impact of 3D printing on the toy industry should not be underestimated. The technology offers many advantages, including easier and more creative prototyping, the launch of new products to the market much faster, as well as cost-effective customisation.