They have the potential to make bodily organs, food for astronauts and pinkie fingers. But when the people hoping to use them don’t know how to work their software, 3-D printers remain too intimidating.
This week, I tested a product that changes that — the 3Doodler by Boston-based WobbleWorks Inc. It’s a chunky, black, pen-like device that plugs in, warms up, and squirts out plastic. The plastic, which comes in 38 colors, forms objects that cool in seconds, letting you create objects on the fly — not by first designing them in a 3-D software program. You can also trace stencils to make pieces that can be assembled to create bigger things.
While many traditional 3-D printers cost thousands of dollars and require hours or days to make objects, the 3Doodler is $99, and works instantaneously.
Don’t get me wrong: The 3Doodler won’t churn out perfectly sculpted objects. Rather, it relies on your steady hand and artistic ability. My first, second and third attempts at creating flowers were pretty pitiful (and I took years of art lessons when I was younger). Using this thing requires thinking about how something is built, not drawn, so in the case of making a flower, I had to consider forming its base, stem and petals so that all of these pieces connected to one another.
Even if you can think through the construction of a thing, it’s challenging to mold hot plastic into recognizable objects. As with a hot-glue gun, you have to keep holding down the button that dispenses plastic for longer than you think. And thin wisps of plastic can hang from your dried objects.
Though there’s a steep learning curve for the 3Doodler, I liked that it stretched my brain and gave me a small sense of accomplishment. Instead of writing a review that posts online and gets shared around the Web, I created a physical object that couldn’t be deleted with a keystroke. Yes, it’s just a squiggly, flower-like thing, but you get the point.
Exactly one year ago today, WobbleWorks took to the fundraising website Kickstarter in the hope of raising $30,000 in 30 days for its 3Doodler. Instead, it raised $1.5 million in the first three days; it has raised $2.3 million to date.
If you go to the 3Doodler website today, you’ll have to preorder a device, rather than buying it immediately, but WobbleWorks co-founder Daniel Cowen says you’ll get it by early March. By the beginning of April, 3Doodlers will be found in Brookstone stores, among other places. Before summer, it will appear in classrooms, where blind students can use it to learn by touching things like maps, graph lines and words.
To get started, I plugged my 3Doodler into the wall socket to heat it up. (It must remain plugged in during use.) A small light on its side glows red when the pen is heating up, then turns blue or green, depending on your type of plastic, when it’s ready to use.
Plastic filaments for the 3Doodler come in packs of 25 and cost $10 each, except for glow-in-the-dark packs, which cost $12. The filament comes in two types of plastic, PLA and ABS, and each works better for certain things. PLA is made of corn, so it’s biodegradable; it’s also the better option for drawing on glass or metallic surfaces. ABS works best for creating lines that go up — like the stem of my flower — or lines that bend. It’s also the better option for drawing on paper and peeling an object off.
I used a mixed pack of ABS plastic with sticks in five different colors — white, brown, blue, purple and silver. After my 3Doodler was heated up to more than 446 degrees, which took less than a minute, I fed my first plastic stick into it.
Two arrows, located where you hold the pen, let you squirt plastic in fast or slow mode, and pressing either button makes a loud churning sound, which is caused by the 3Doodler’s tiny, built-in cooling fan.
One edge of the 3Doodler is flat, preventing this hot pen from rolling around and falling off surfaces. But despite this safety feature, I managed to slightly burn myself, after finishing one of my creations and brushing the side of my hand with the tip of the 3Doodler.
The coolest 3Doodler party trick is drawing in the air, moving the pen up from a countertop or piece of paper. I made a spring this way, circling higher and higher while keeping the pen’s “fast” button pressed to extrude hot plastic. While something like Silly String would collapse, my 3Doodler’s plastic held its form. It was also strong enough that objects stayed intact when stuffed inside my work bag.
In addition to creating new objects by drawing freehand or tracing stencils, the 3Doodler can be used to stick two things together, or to add designs to existing things, like a pair of glasses.
The world of 3-D printing encourages creativity, and the 3Doodler takes that creative license further by sidestepping design software. Its community website, where printable stencil patterns and ideas are shared, will give this device a way to keep evolving and growing.