Controversy in a high-tech box!
ToyBox 3D Printer ($389 for the bundle, $299 with one spool of plastic.) My family has been reviewing toys for three decades, yet in all that time no single product has caused so much controversy as the ToyBox 3D printer. It isn't the only, or even first 3D printer I've been pitched, but it is the one that has received the most media buzz on Facebook and TV.
Let me give you a quick introduction in case 3D printing is new to you. The Toybox uses spools of plastic in place of ink to create three dimensional objects. Magically, if slowly, the plastic is exuded from a hot nozzle, much like that at the end of a glue gun. Just as there are standard formats for graphics files, these also exist for 3D printing, and to its credit the Toybox can create objects based on the files that are in its library or those created in many 3D design programs.
Getting up and running on the printer was almost as easy as setting up a regular printer. You connect it to your wireless home network using a phone app, load up the spool of plastic, choose a design from the app, and start printing.
Unfortunately, after that initial setup things didn't go exactly according to plan. What came out of the printer the first few times was a blobby stringy mess. After consulting on-line support resources I saw that the instructions for loading the plastic seemed backwards. Then, after running the calibration program (and getting good results) I tried again. The object, a top, printed fine at first, but then devolved into an abstract tangle of plastic. After about an hour of trial and error, I was able to successfully get my top to print. I wasted a lot of time and effort and a surprising amount of plastic. On the plus side, it now seems to be working pretty reliably. Still, if you are planning to have this working on Christmas morning I urge you to do the setup the night before, while the kids are still asleep. Otherwise, you and they may get quite frustrated.
As I mentioned, the family fell into two camps on the ToyBox. Some felt it was a "toy of the future", "magical to watch", and "simple to use". Toyportfolio.com even made it a Platinum Award winner, which you can check out for another viewpoint.
The detractors had rather more to say: The first concern is that it is potentially dangerous. The plastic is melted and exuded from a very hot nozzle. There are no doors or other barriers that keep inquiring fingers from touching it. Worse, at least until we got our unit adjusted, the plastic would sometimes glob around the nozzle, and need to be cleared. So adult supervision is critical at the very least. Just as I tend to avoid recommending drones as toys because of their danger, parents should really consider the risk which is always present with this type of product.
Next, it is an expensive "toy" at $389, less on holiday discounts. Keep in mind, that is only the beginning. You'll eventually need extra plastic "ink", they call it "food" at $30 a roll.
Then, the results. The objects it prints reminded me of the toys I used to get at the local penny arcade. They are lightweight, not particularly detailed. In other words, except for the fact that "you" printed them, they have little value comparable to a toy you might buy in a store. One of the most egregious examples was a "Baby Yoda" I printed that was virtually unrecognizable if I hadn't know what it was supposed to be.
There is also the question of Climate Change and pollution. What are the ethics of a toy that uses plastic to make toys that are in my opinion, in most cases, going to be junked? Yes, the same could be said of many commercial toys, but here where I saw the plastic being melted and reformed, it seemed particularly wasteful and inconsiderate of the planet. As I smelled the plastic being melted by the nozzle, "playing" with the printer made me feel like a polluter, adding low-value plastic to the landfill. Now, you could make that point about a lot of toys today; some even using more plastic, but subjectively this made me feel worse, because I was "creating" the waste from its inception.
The biggest question posed by the ToyBox Printer is whether (and to what extent) it is a device that inspires creativity. Is the device as open-ended as a regular printer, or is it closer to a coloring book? You might argue, and some do, that coloring books are "creative", but we tend to prefer more open-ended arts and crafts, projects that don't force their ideas onto the child or limit imagination with prefab outlines. Is the Toybox Printer like a coloring book, or is it closer to a box of crayons?
The answer lies somewhere in between.
In part it depends on the user's sophistication. As mentioned the easiest way to use the printer is to select a predesigned object from the app's library. All you have to do is hit print. Not too creative.
There are several activities in the app that do provide for the user to have input into the choices. There are figures you can customize to a certain extent before you print, for example changing the shape of eyes or mouth, but these are mostly just a matter of selecting from a menu. There is a rudimentary drawing program, and an option that lets you print 3D embossed versions of jpg files. To really get to the most creative aspects of the ToyBox however, you need to create your own 3D designs. For that you need software that goes beyond the simple ToyBox App. Could a teenager or adult use the printer to make interesting things? Yes, if motivated it could be a powerful tool. But, that seems to be the outlying use-case, at least as it is being marketed, and not something most kids are likely to experience.
So where do I come down on the ToyBox Printer? For most families I think the negatives outweigh the positives. It is potentially dangerous, produces plastic toys that (for the most part) are of a quality you wouldn't buy in a store, and has limited opportunities for a child to create.
Give a good set of modeling clay to an elementary school aged child and the differences are all too apparent. The clay can be turned into anything the child imagines; it invites creativity. It also builds dexterity, and provides opportunities for discovery. It can even be used to teach fractions and arithmetic. It doesn't usually require parental supervision and it can burn or hurt a child. Compare Faber-Castell World Colors Modeling Clay ($5.99) set to this $389 gadget and you judge which is the better value.
Of course, if you are planning on using the ToyBox Printer primarily with 3rd Party software, you really need to judge it against other machines in its class to see if it provides the level of resolution that you need. That goes well beyond its use as a 3D printer for kids, and is not evaluated as such here. For that it may be provide a relatively low cost entry to the world of 3D printing, particularly for teens and adults.
However, as a "toy", it sets off too many red flags for me: Relative play value, price, and safety all cause concern.