This week marks the annual reappearance of the big bad Toy Fair in New York City, where toymakers show off their latest gizmos, doodads, and thingamajigs for the young and the young at heart. As with all aspects of pop culture these days, the Toy Fair has already shown its affinity for nostalgia, with several classic playthings appearing in updated-for-the-21st-century iterations. Some of these returning toys are stupid as $#!t—*cough* wifi enabled Barbie Dream House *cough cough*. But one modernized retro gem shows the potential to get kids back into actually making things for fun instead of just chasing pixels on their damn screens.
I write, of course, of the new, 3D-printing ThingMaker.
It’s 3D Printin’ Time!
Mattel’s original ThingMaker, a true gem among the many classic toys of the 1960s, allowed kids to make their own non-articulated action figures and other small plastic-esque whatchamacallits from a special chemical substance that was “cooked” in a small, Easy Bake-like oven. At one point in those glorious golden days, kids could even create their own kinda-sorta custom Hot Wheels cars using the ThingMaker.
The updated ThingMaker, which will be available for about $300 starting this fall, uses 3D printing technology to make bigger, better, and more complex plastic toys. A simplified version of Autodesk software enables kids to make just about anything they can think of—pre-made templates are available, but users can also go “off book” and design toys as they see fit.
An additional improvement: instead of creating simple, static figures, the new ThingMaker can produce individual parts that can assembled into more intricate toys. This allows for articulated action figures that can be posed like good ol’ G.I. Joe. Smaller items can be 3D printed in about a half hour; larger toys that fill most of the printer’s work envelope can take up to six hours to complete.
Toys Good, STEM Influence Better
Kids being able to make their own legit, “custom” toys is seriously one of the best things ever. If I’d’ve had one of these hot rod ThingMakers as a youth, I’d’ve sent my family to the poor house with what would’ve been an insatiable need for more 3D printer-friendly plastic materials.
And, instead of writing a stupid blog that no one reads, I’d probably be in a STEM field developing who knows what kinds of cool, crazy stuff. Don’t get me wrong, my parents encouraged me to do well in all my studies, but I never had that one teacher or experience that really pushed me toward science, technology, engineering, or mathematics—a toy like this one would’ve been exactly the push I needed. I am, obviously, very interested in those fields (except math) these days, but I wasn’t really into them when I was little, and it seems like it’s too late now to get on board in any real capacity.
Hopefully, the new ThingMaker will bring the dawn of STEM careers for countless modern kids. Someone—maybe Mattel, maybe a university somewhere, maybe Bill Gates—should hold an open competition for kids to submit their 3D-printed toys, with the winners receiving scholarships to STEM-focused colleges. Any kid who can master 3D printing software (even a simplified version) at age 10 deserves the chance to do something bigger and better, and that’s something this country—and the world—desperately needs.