ThingMaker – Mattel’s new family 3D printer

1960s toy concept gets a state of the art update

If you think 3D printing is just for engineers and hobbyists, you’re wrong. Toy company Mattel have just announced that they’re relaunching an old favourite with additive manufacturing technology, and the new version is due to hit the shops in the next few months.

Mattel introduced ThingMaker in 1964. It was basically a home moulding kit; each set came with a selection of metal moulds, mostly for revolting-looking insects. Children could fill the moulds with a special liquid compound, the imaginatively named “Plastigoop”, then heat them on a small hot plate. The Plastigoop would solidify into a rubbery substance and your offspring could then spend happy hours losing small, squishy beetles under the sofa.

Killed by safety, revived by technology

Mattel stopped selling the ThingMaker in 1970, probably because someone decided that giving children a small electric hotplate wasn’t a great idea. They came up with a safer – but more boring – version in 1978 and it went in and out of production over the next couple of decades, with other companies picking up the concept under various names. Some of them used a lightbulb-powered “oven” to bake the moulds. But now Mattel have decided to bring the idea right up to date, and the latest ThingMaker is due to be released in October.

If you’re not familiar with the original ThingMaker, don’t worry; this one has nothing in common with it but the name. Only the concept of letting kids make simple toys at home has been kept. The moulds, the hot plate and even the Plastigoop are all gone. Instead there’s a neat-looking 3D printer that looks designed to be safe but interesting for kids. So far Mattel have only displayed a non-working replica so far, but it has a colourful orange case and a big, transparent door that automatically locks when a job starts running. This should keep small fingers out of the moving parts but give them a good view of the printing process.

It’s all about the app

The hardware isn’t actually the most interesting part, though. One reason children soon got bored with the old version was that, unless you kept spending money on new sets of moulds, you soon ended up making the same things over and over again. This one is very different. Mattel have worked with software specialist Autodesk to come up with a custom app which will control the printer. Available for iOS and Android, the ThingMaker app has a library of ready-made toys to print, but it doesn’t just let kids print objects – they can design them too. The app has a simple and colourful interface that sits on top of a library of templates and ready-made parts, which can be dragged and dropped to create new objects. It can even simulate how objects will move when assembled.

The ThingMaker Design app is available now as a free download, for both Apple and Google devices. When Mattel release their own printer it should be able to print with one click, but for now you can create .stl files and export them for use with any printer. Mattel estimate the price for their printer will be around $299 in the USA – so probably £299 in the UK, worse luck – and interestingly their plan is to use standard PLA filament for it, instead of locking buyers into a proprietary size. It looks like the app could be a fun way to introduce children to 3D printing, and the printer itself is intriguing too. We can’t wait to get a close look at a real one.

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