Thanks to 3-D printing technology, custom toys could become the new fan fiction, a way for obsessives young and old to connect with the TV shows, movies and video games that they love.
Take “My Little Pony,” the children’s cartoon that captured the hearts of a group of grown men often referred to as “Bronies.” Earlier this week, Hasbro announced that it was selling 3-D printed “My Little Pony” toys designed by fans — most of them guys who just really loved the show.
But it’s not just magical ponies that people are creating. On the Internet, you can find everything from amateur-made Pokemon creatures to replicas of the tricorder from “Star Trek.”
Hasbro decided to embrace the fan designs and partner with Shapeways, a website where people can share blueprints that are entered into 3-D printers, which create three-dimensional objects by putting down layer after layer of a material, usually plastic.
“In the past, we weren’t able to feature the designs on our site, because of copyright restrictions,” Blair Baumwell, head of communications for Shapeways, told NBC News. “Hasbro realized this, called us, and said ‘Let’s work together.’”
3-D technology has been around since the 1980s, but only now have 3-D printers become cheap enough (some sell for under $1,000 on Amazon) for people to make items like screws and — more controversially — firearms at home.
"Well, I printed a chess set that turns into a Transformer, so they can get pretty complex."
Of course, screws are cheap and readily available, and guns bought from a licensed dealer are more reliable. One-of-a-kind toys, however, have a different kind of appeal. It’s not about 3-D printing for convenience; it’s about creating something unique.
“We have people ask us to print figurines, objects for train sets, characters from videogames,” Nicholas Liverman, co-founder of Virginia-based Old World Laboratories (OWL), told NBC News. “Toys are actually very popular. It’s the category that has caught on the most.”
His company sells a high-resolution printer, the OWL Nano, for around $5,000. It also prints out designs that people send to it. The most common request: characters from the world’s most popular video game, “League of Legends.”
These toys are not limited to simple shapes, either. How complex can they get?
“Well, I printed a chess set that turns into a Transformer, so they can get pretty complex,” Liverman said.
These fan creations are enthusiastically shared on the Internet, kind of like fan fiction, in which people write their own versions of stories that they love. These designs are going to circulate anyway, Liverman said, so companies might as well offer them alongside their own and encourage people to interact with their brand.
Before the rise of cheap 3-D printers, it would have cost a fortune to create a mold for a custom-made toy. That is not the case today.
“There is no inventory,” Baumwell said. “You don’t need to print hundreds of thousands of them to be cost-effective.”
With new 3-D scanning technology, some companies are letting fans take things a step further. For a limited time last year, visitors to Disney Hollywood Studios could get their heads printed onto a “Star Wars” stormtrooper. This weekend at ComicCon, “Walking Dead” fans will be able create zombie-fighting action figures of themselves.
Charles Mire, founder of Structur3d Printing in Ontario, likens the trend to “cosplay,” where people dress up like their favorite characters.
While comic book fans are certainly embracing the technology, the more important demographic lives under his own roof — his two daughters, ages 2 and 4.
Little kids might not care about the “Walking Dead,” but they want to make something unique as well.
“At their age, they are trying to harness their creativity, and 3-D printing gives them an outlet,” Mire said. Plus, he added, they get bored with the toys that they already have.
“Their attention span is short, so they could print a frog, for example, play with it for a day or two, and then 3-D print something different.”