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Affordable and putting 3D printing creativity into the hands of children 8 and above, the 3Doodler Start is a great way to give kids a new artistic experience. The possibilities are endless, but things can get a bit messy.
3D printing has taken the world by storm, but it remains a largely rigid process, relying on computer-aided designs. While the output is very precise, it can often lack panache.
To combat this, we have the 3D printer pen, most notably from 3Doodler. But while these handheld 3D printers are straightforward to use, they can be unsuitable for children, and miss the childish creativity and flair. So, meet the 3Doodler Start, a 3D printing pen aimed at children of 8 years and older. But is it safe for children to use?
3D Printing, But in Your Hand
Let’s get this out of the way. 3D printers are big, bulky devices, not dissimilar to fish tanks, that carefully extrude plastic from a computer-controlled nozzle.
A 3D printer pen is quite different.
Instead of a rigid nozzle outputting plastic on two axes, the 3D printer pen is free form. You hold the device in your hand, feed a strand of plastic filament, and let your imagination go to work. In many ways, it is completely different from a 3D printer.
The pen itself can be powered by mains cable or a rechargeable battery. Typically, there are controls to feed or reverse the plastic strand, along with an option to stop extruding plastic.
Think of it like a thick felt tip pen that outputs plastic. Oh, and you can draw in three dimensions. Hence the name “3D printing pen”.
3Doodler has released several 3D printing pens over the years. We’ve reviewed several in the past, but this is the first one aimed at children. But how suitable is it for young, creative minds?
To find out, I asked my daughter, Erin-rose, to help me out.
Is a 3D Printing Pen Safe for Children?
Standard 3Doodler devices are not safe for children. These 3D printing pens are designed to push melted plastic strands out of a nib, which you create art with by drawing. Meanwhile, the nib remains hot throughout the process, while the plastic takes a few seconds to cool.
In short, burning is a risk. I’ve burnt myself several times on the standard 3Doodler nib, and had plastic stuck to me, scalding my skin.
Totally unsuitable for kids.
With the 3Doodler Start, however, things are different.
To start off with, there is no hot nib. Instead, the nib is plastic and entirely safe to touch. Similarly, the plastic is extruded at a much lower temperature; more malleable than molten. It’s a little like chewing gum but cools relatively quickly to harden. Also like chewing gum, it can get a bit messy.
This isn’t the same plastic used in 3Doodler kits aimed at adults, however. Instead, this is BPA-free (a substance that can harm hormone development) plastic filament that can only be used with the 3Doodler Start pen. Note that this product is not suitable for children under 36 months.
Refill filament can be purchased from Amazon.
What You Get With a 3Doodler Start
As you’d expect with a kit for kids, the 3Doodler Start offers a simplified 3Doodler experience. In the box you’ll find two packets of plastic filaments, the 3Doodler Start pen, and a short USB charge cable. There’s also an instruction booklet and a book of templates.
Various template designs are included, enabling you to get started right away.
The box is compact, but you’ll find everything you need to start 3D printing by hand!
Loading Up on Plastic
Before starting, it’s a good idea to charge the 3Doodler Start. This can be done from a standard USB port.
A small switch on the side is provided to turn the device on and off. Switching on warms up the 3Doodler Start; the amber light turns to green when it’s time to start feeding in the strands of plastic.
The 3Doodler Start’s simple one-button-does-all control is multifunctional. With this, the plastic is fed in or ejected; it is also used for extruding the heated strands.
While the simplified approach is of course ideal for children, it isn’t perfect. In our test device, the button wasn’t as responsive as it could have been, leaving Erin-rose to spend too long trying to feed in plastic.
Having said that, once the plastic is flowing, the stop control does a great job of ceasing extrusion immediately. This is important for creating a neater project.
What Can You Create?
With a 3Doodler pen in your hand, you’re limited only by your imagination. In theory, you could create anything.
To help you (or your child) get started, the 3Doodler Start kit comes with a set of stencils. These can be used to create a smartphone case, decorative glasses, a miniature Eiffel Tower, and much more.
You see, the 3Doodler’s plastic is designed so that it can be applied to paper but is easy to remove once set. This makes paper templates ideal, giving you the option to create your own designs with just a pen and paper.
A flip through the templates reveals that some templates need to be reused within the same project. For example, the Eiffel Tower components need to be created four times each. Once you’re done, each part can be “glued” together with a dab of warm plastic.
3D Print Directly onto Your Tablet’s Display—No, Really
Meanwhile, more designs are can be found in the 3Doodler app, available for iOS and Android.
Along with videos and ordering tools for new filament, the app features stencils to create more designs. But you don’t print these out—instead, you “write” with the 3Doodler Start directly onto your tablet or phone’s display.
Now, this feature might surprise you as much as it did us. We spoke to a representative from 3Doodler, who told us: “our 3Doodler Start pen extrudes plastic at about 110 degrees, so slightly warmer than the human body. This makes it a non-issue with our most popular product.”
To try this out, Erin-rose spent a few minutes looking for an attractive template before settling on a CND emblem, and a set of lips. The end results were indistinguishable from using a paper template, although the underside was a bit smoother than paper.
It was around this time that Erin-rose noticed that the flat side of a 3Doodler model might look more attractive. As such, she’s started constructing everything “back to front”, with the smooth side showing. Although it looks tidier, it’s an approach that does lose some of the individuality of the 3Doodler Start experience.
Not keen on printing onto an expensive tablet? Don’t worry—everything in the app can be sent to your local printer instead.
STEM Benefits of 3Doodler Start
Many parents these days are looking for toys that bring an educational dimension into their children’s lives. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) toys are becoming increasingly prominent. It helps that toy manufacturers are identifying their products’ STEM strengths.
3Doodler notes that “As a tactile learning toy, the 3Doodler Start inspires creativity, design, planning, building and spatial understanding.”
Certainly, there is a certain amount of engineering that is required in building something like a 3D plastic Eiffel Tower. However, the strengths of the 3Doodler Start seem to be more in the STEAM area (the same abbreviation, but with art), with stencils for masks, stamps, gift tags, and more.
It is worth noting that other items in the 3Doodler Start range are more STEM than STEAM, however. For example, there is a 3Doodler Start Robotics kit, as well as one focusing on architecture.
Is 3D Printing Suitable for Kids?
Easy to hold, the 3Doodler Start makes 3D printing safe for children. The possibilities are exciting, but the experience isn’t wholly perfect.
The softer plastic is frustrating to use at times and certainly makes more of a mess than the adult variety. One impact of this is that 3D printing becomes a more tactile experience, as thumbs and fingers start pressing the plastic into shapes rather than waiting for it to set.
However, this soft plastic does make the 3Doodler Start’s nib particularly difficult to keep clean.
Additionally, the single button controlling the feed (both directions) and the stop/start of extrusion can be confusing for children.
Having said all of that, Erin-rose assures me that it’s fun to use. She doesn’t mind that it gets a bit messy. Why would she?
Get Your Kids 3D Printing with 3Doodler Start
Both a 3D printer and a 3D printing pen rely on the extrusion of lines of plastic to build something.
However, this is really all they have in common. You’re no more going to make a perfect plastic box with a 3D printer pen than create a work of individual art in a machine.
Surprisingly affordable, the 3Doodler Start can help to encourage creative endeavor and keep your child occupied at weekends, on holidays, and during bouts of bad weather. While the mobile app might seem a little insane, the plastic residue can be safely and easily removed from your device display. We’d understand if you preferred to use the printed templates, though!