“The Lego Movie” had parents and kids singing “Everything Is Awesome” all the way to the toy stores, which boosted sales for the Danish block makers – but now researchers are reporting findings that may not be so awesome for toy retailers.
Joshua Pearce, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Tech, says that making toys at home with a 3-D printer can be up to 90 percent cheaper than buying them at the store.
Pearce and his colleagues analyzed the 100 most downloaded designs from MyMiniFactory, an online archive for 3-D printing blueprints, and compared them with their commercially available counterparts. Among the top contenders were a miniature version of the Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones,” Harry Potter’s magic wand and Han Solo’s “Star Wars” blaster.
They tested three different raw printing materials: stringy commercial filament, which is the most popular feedstock sold on Amazon; pellet-extruded filament, which is less expensive; and waste plastic converted into filament by a “recyclebot” — one of Pearce’s inventions.
Making the toys from the commercial filaments was 75 percent less expensive than buying the finished toy, while the recycled filament cut the cost by 90 percent.
To produce the results, Pearce teamed up with Emily Petersen, a former student researcher and Washington state native; and Romain Kidd, CEO of MyMiniFactory.
The findings were published today by the journal Technologies.
The team also looked at the cost of Legos and other toy building blocks.
A single Lego block costs 6 cents, the study found, but consumers can get away with paying 3 cents on an off-brand lookalike. The cost per brick of Marvel-themed kits skyrocketed to as much as $3.61 per piece.
By going the non-traditional route of printing from home, one block can cost as little as a half a cent each. “The evidence is just overwhelming that this makes sense from a consumer’s perspective,” Pearce said in a news release.
While having a low-cost 3-D printer at home to crank out toys isn’t exactly the norm just yet, Pearce told GeekWire that in a few years, kids are going to be asking for “hyper custom” 3-D printed toys for the holidays.
“Santa may already be investing in a 3-D print farm to help the elves now,” he joked.
Toymakers and game makers are expected to take in $135 billion in revenue annually by 2020, and as a parent, Pearce isn’t happy about that.
“Legos are expensive,” he said. “All parents know you can’t find them at garage sales; everyone hoards them like they’re gold.”
Lego’s recently released NASA Apollo Saturn V model is a case in point: The model has a list price of $120 on Lego’s website, where it’s sold out. Third-party sellers are offering it for around $200 on Amazon.
Meanwhile, 3-D printers are getting cheaper, and there’s even a kit that’s selling for about $100. The up-front purchase of a 3-D printer may seem like a steep price to pay for little blocks, chess pieces and other plastic toys, but Pearce and his collegues argue that it can save money in the long run.
They also argue there’s more to 3-D printing than just saving money. Pearce told GeekWire that the technology lets kids create something that can be more meaningful than a store-bought toy. For example, youngsters can take a design for a Halloween costume, customize it to fit their faces exactly, add their own favorite colors, or even create a mash-up design with other characters.
“The magic happens when they share the design with an open license, and others from all over the world build on it and re-share their improvements,” he said.
Pearce said the process can add educational value, providing students with skills they can use in college and their careers.
“As an engineering professor, I am excited to see children learning CAD [computer-aided design], and even coding with OpenSCAD,” Pearce said. “When they get to university, they will be amazing.”