When the Kickstarter campaign for the 3Doodler 3D printer pen was launched by US toy company Wobble Works in the early part of 2013, the web went a wee-bit mental. If you missed the hype, this was a chubby little device that fit snugly in the user’s hand, allowing them to draw 3D objects directly on to any porous surface: No computer animated design skills or hefty hardware required. It was 3D printing simplified to the most extreme degree, with an emphasis on getting ideas from a creative brain to the real world at speed, and investors loved it.
The campaign hit its $30,000 goal within hours, with a pledge of $50 or more securing investors their very own 3Doodler once it was ready to ship. By the time the funding period closed on 25th March the kitty held a jaw dropping $2.3 million and just about every tech blog and gadget hack on the internet had embedded one of the hypnotic demo videos that showed the pen in action to their site (this particular gadget hack has embedded one below).
So with the first wave of pre-ordered 3Doodlers winging their way to excited early adopters this month, it would seem all is rosy over at Wobble Works. Yet, almost as soon as the campaign wrapped up, a slew of remarkably similar looking products announced themselves online. What’s more, with the 3Doodler earmarked for general release next February and European competitors planning to launch as soon as October, the stage might be set for one of the fiercest marketing battles of 2014.
How do 3D printer pens work anyway?
The concept behind the technology is pretty straightforward: imagine if users could control the extruder of a 3D printer by hand? Remarkably, early prototypes of the 3Doodler were pretty literal manifestations of this idea, with co-creators Max Brogue and Peter Dilworth ripping an extruder straight out of a machine and grafting on a handle. The models currently shipping to Kickstarter investors, however, are far more refined beasts.
The pen simultaneously extrudes and cools the plastic filament that is fed through its body. This allows the user to ‘build’ as they pull the material away from the surface and write in 3 dimensions, creating intricate handcrafted designs. Though the Kickstarter video promises ‘if you can scribble, trace or wave a finger in the air you can use a 3Doodler to create simple or complex objects’ it looks likely to be effective in the hands of skilled artists and designers. That is not to say it is only for arty types, however. Brogue and Dilworth also predict the 3Doodler will become a vital tool for repairing objects and welding material with greater precision.
Considering the hype and cash generated by the 3Doodler’s crowd-funding campaign, it was inevitable that similar products would eventually turn up. It was perhaps less predictable just how quickly they would rear their heads. The first was the 3DYAYA model, the result of a 5 grand crowd funding campaign by a Chinese tech company that launched in May. Looking identical to the Wobble Works’ design in all but one significant way (it uses 1.75mm of plastic as opposed to the 3Doodler’s 3mm), cries of ‘copycat’ rang up around the web immediately.
That didn’t slow down the folks behind 3DYAYA, however, who rushed their product into circulation at the end of July, at a price of just RMD259 (about £27) for its crowd funding investors and RMD368 (about £39) for those ordering online. Though that’s a hell of a lot cheaper than the predicted 3Doodler price of $99 (£63), the swiftness with which it went into production might set buyer’s alarm bells ringing. Precise order numbers are not yet available, but certainly 3Doodler’s communications director Daniel Cowan was not perturbed by the competition stating: “The one thing that nobody will be able to copy is our future innovations.”
Yet before 3Doodler will hit the shelves, a European company, Groupe JL Monnin, will be releasing its own 3D print pen device the Swiss Pen, which will be available for £70 from this October. On its stylish, minimalist website, the Swiss Pen is advertised as possessing ‘the precision a Swiss watch would be proud of’ and, as you would imagine, no mention is made of the Wobble Works’ project. Yet the similarities are glaringly easy to spot. In fact, a table educating buyers on the difference between using ABS or PLA plastic that appears on the Swiss Pen site is a near-exact replica of the one previously posted on the 3Doodler’s site.
There’s not much information regarding the Groupe JL Monnin available online, so it is difficult to find out the company’s history. Some are even speculating that they have been set-up by the same people behind the 3DYAYA and that the Swiss Pen is basically the same product, repackaged for a Western market, though it should be said there is no evidence that this suggestion is true. Then there is the 3D Wand, from UK company Works Out of the Box, which can be pre-ordered for £99 online with an estimated shipping date of 30th September.
Until we actually get our hands on these devices, we can’t begin to truly compare them. Despite its competitors fast tracking their devices and undercutting its price tag, the 3Doodler’s development, technology and processes can all be tracked clearly online by anybody who takes a look at its website or Kickstarter page. That transparency should be enough to keep the enthusiast’s interest until it launches in six month’s time. Certainly, at this early, early stage in the product’s lifetime, it is the best known name in the 3D pen game. Will that change before February? We’ll be watching things closely and letting you know the answer as soon as we do.