Tag Archives: The Future

An Emerging Symbiosis

I’ve read plenty of articles that boil down to, “What is LEGO going to do in The Future, when anyone, ANYONE! can print their own LEGO kit in their basement?”

One can swap LEGO with whatever $manufacturer you choose: Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, K’Nex, Colt Firearms. (The 3D printing of firearms is a topic I’ll visit sometime soon, but for now let’s stick to things you can buy at Toys R’ Us.)

The implication of these articles is often that $manufacturer is ultimately screwed. Sooner or later, The Future will arrive and $manufacturer‘s revenue stream will dry up as we all print their products willy-nilly in our living rooms.

I see things differently.

This afternoon my son was playing with the new K’Nex set graciously provided by Grandpa and Grandma. He couldn’t find the one gray piece he needs to finish his roller coaster, so I volunteered to print him one.

Thingiverse doesn’t have the specific piece I need. Nor should they; K’Nex owns the rights to their designs and they deserve to profit from them. They’ve invested the capital in building their factories and hiring designers, and it’s their right to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. Thingiverse probably doesn’t want or need the legal headaches associated with hosting knockoff models of popular toys.

(I just realized I’m making arguments similar to those made by drug companies. Maybe there’s a path to The Future where designs go “generic” after a couple of years so that $manufacturer has an incentive to continue creating new ones? I digress.)

So Thingiverse doesn’t have the piece I need, but they do have pieces from the Universal Construction Kit, which lets one link toys that weren’t designed to be linked– Tinkertoys to Lincoln Logs, Duplo to K’Nex, and so on.

So I grabbed a K’nex -> Duplo connector, did a little vertex surgery, and now I have the piece I need as a 3D model.

knex

To print!

This is what I got, printed in red ABS. Note the difference between my bootleg copy and the original. Cue sad trombone.

knex_fail

You could argue that the MakerBot Replicator is *the* top-of-the-line home 3D printer. There are others in its price range that have more or less the same capability, and if you go an order of magnitude more expensive you can get yourself a small industrial quality prototyper with superior resolution.

Part of this failure is surely inability to configure my printer settings properly, but I think a larger part of it is that the Replicator just can’t print this precisely yet. K’Nex parts are cast in ABS, which effectively means they’ve got molecular-level resolution. No way I can get that on my desktop in 2013.

A further limitation of the additive printing process is those overhangs– even if I could get the resolution right, gravity would pull those long grooves down and make the part significantly less K’Nex-able.

You might get around this by printing the entire piece as a column, but my experience in printing toothpicks vertically is that they tend to fail.

So K’Nex gets a pass until the resolution of home 3D printers increases. Maybe the Form1 will be able to do it. We’ll have to wait until the Form1 is out in the wild to see. I’m hopeful, because right now a lot of my ideas are limited by resolution and gravity.

What about lower-resolution objects, like Tinkertoys? Tinkertoys are well-within the resolution range of the Replicator. I’ve already made a couple of Tinkertoy-compatible items.

apple

There’s nothing stopping me from printing a Tinkertoy clone right now except time, but the manufacturing process that makes Tinkertoys at gets them to the toy store (or, in my case, Amazon) is so much more efficient than a Replicator that it just doesn’t make sense, it can’t *ever* make financial sense to print these toys at home unless the price of plastic feedstock drops to near zero.

(Ultra-low-cost feedstock might happen with a descendant of the Filabot Reclaimer, but it’s not here now.)

So I don’t see home fabrication of toys taking off anytime soon, but here’s what is happening. People are using their 3D printers to extend the capabilities of their existing toys.

gears This is the emerging symbiosis: traditional manufacturing is now and likely will forever provide the base of the mass-market toy experience, cranking out LEGO bricks and Lincoln Logs by the millions. Home-based 3D printers will make small production runs for niche items– gears that extend your Tinkertoys, wacky Lincoln Logs accessories, and the like. Over time, $manufacturer will adapt to the proliferation of high-resolution home printers by offering certified premium models, guaranteed to be interoperable with their mass-manufactured cousins.

zheng3_penny_catapultIn short, I think 3D printers aren’t going to kill the toy industry, they’re going to make it much more creative. And haven’t even mentioned new toys like Dutchmogul’s Pocket Tactics, or my pet project, Seej.

Repairing a Toy with 3D Printing

My daughter bought an inexpensive headlamp recently, and like many inexpensive toys, it broke within hours of purchase. She can’t wear it anymore because part of the buckle assembly snapped off and we managed to lose the broken piece before she could glue it back together.

Here’s the damage.

This is a perfect opportunity to fire up the MakerBot Replicator.

If you look carefully in the back of the photo you’ll see an AppleCore earbud wrap, which I highly recommend if you’ve got a bazillion small cables in your life. AppleCores are great stocking stuffers for geeks, BTW, and the holiday shopping season is nigh.

Moving on: let’s test one of my expectations about Living In The Future: in The Future, one will be able to repair broken household items quickly and easily using a 3D printer.

TL;DR version: we don’t live in The Future yet. But we’re getting there. This whole process took about an hour and a half of human-time.

The first step is to get a scan of the broken part. Scanning it with 123DCatch is probably too much hassle for what’s basically a flat object, so I put the headlamp down on a flatbed scanner and covered it with a few sheets of office paper and a black piece of cloth to keep too much light from getting in.

And then a little levels adjustment in Photoshop to bring out the contour I need for tracing. I’m going to add an entirely new backing to the headlamp instead of trying to replace just the broken bit.

I brought the photo into Maya, and traced the edges with NURBS curves. Next, extruded the poly surface, made sure the dimensions were correct, and exported to ReplicatorG. After 45 minutes of vertex wrangling I had this shape:

The slice and print went quickly. I glued the 3D printed part to the original with JB Weld.

(JB Weld also makes a great stocking stuffer for geeks. I once owned a ’92 Toyota Corolla [R.I.P. Felipe] that was 30% JB Weld by weight, not including the zip ties and the fuel door I machined out of an old PC case.)

Wait 24 hours to cure, and we’re done.

Totally functional, if not the most beautiful repair ever. I debated putting the STL for this up on Thingiverse, but this model is useful to exactly one person in the world so there’s not a lot of point in sharing it. If you must have one, email me or DM me.

Why We Don’t Live in The Future Just Yet: The barrier to entry on doing this at home is still pretty high for most people– computers and software are cheap, but the 3D printer required to do this hasn’t hit the sub-$300 range yet. Five years, maybe?

The technical skills for working in 3D aren’t too common yet either, but the easy availability of apps like SketchUp and TinkerCAD will take care of that in time.

BUT. I could see a service like this being offered at your local hardware store in The Future. Bring in your busted genechtagazoink and an eager nerdling will drop the part in a yellow, overbuilt scanner made by DeWalt, flop the geometry around in some yet-to-be-announced Autodesk product, and then print you a replacement part while you wait, sort of like the way house keys are copied now.

(If you ever meet me in person and want to start a good rant about legacy technology, ask me how I feel about house keys.)

Naturally, I found the broken-off piece this morning. Next to the fridge. Feh.