Like Hulk, the 3Doodler stepped into the laboratory a normal pen, but emerged many times the size and countless times more awesome, as a shining tool of the future, roaring and squirting out fat 3D ink.
Well, the big green guy didn’t really squirt anything (at least not in any of the official comics we’ve read), but otherwise the simile stands. This is our favourite Kickstarter project this year not just because it’s an inspired idea but also because it took us by surprise, 3Doodlers are already in the hands of backers and the price is low enough for a punt. So what is it?
What the what is a 3Doodler?
Essentially a 3D printer nozzle in a pen, sticks of plastic filament are fed through the 3Doodler like a glue gun and extruded at 200ºc (or thereabouts) into thin air or onto surfaces. The plastic then cools and solidifies almost immediately– you’ve got a second or two to bend it to your will – letting you ‘draw’ 3D structures.
It really is gawp-inducing to see the 3Doodler working its next-gen magic in the flesh, making for a nice techy spectator sport. And speaking of flesh, we’ve only burnt ourselves once. Maybe twice. But we manned-up, pressing on with our spindly sculptures with even more dedication than before. Still, it’s not really for kids, despite first impressions.
After your first minute or so of doodling you’ll end up with, well, something. You can squint at it for a while and decide it looks like a camel or alternatively hide away and spend an hour or so (probably over a few sessions) making a figurine, model or piece of plastic jewellery. But either way, it’s miles quicker than a regular 3D printer.
Plastics Make Perfect - ABS and PLA
As with 3D printers, you can pick your plastic but the 3Doodler is only compatible with 3mm strands so it won’t work with the 1.75mm spools sitting next to your UP! Plus.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is the n00b’s choice, as it can draw upwards, bend and flex and works well with stencils as it doesn’t stick too much to paper or surfaces underneath. PLA (Polylactic Acid) sticks to metals and glass, can travel in angles tighter than 90 degrees and is available in translucent colours. Check out 3Doodler’s handy infographic comparing the two in depth.
WobbleWorks, maker of the 3Doodler, is selling packs of 25 strands of both plastics in various colourways (primary, fluoro, black and white plus new shimmer and matte packs) for just U$10 (S$13) a pack. So… both it is. Add. To. Cart. Our advice? Stock up when you first order the device.
Design and Build
Hulky, but comfortable in the hand as it’s not too heavy, even intricate doodles are easy to manage thanks to two arrow buttons for fast (down) and slow (up) settings. It’s a neat device that’s intuitive to use and the power button doubles as the slider to select the plastic you’re using.
The fan is quite noisy so you won’t be whipping it out in the office for a quick sketch and 3Doodling can get tiring so you’re unlikely to have sessions lasting longer than half an hour to an hour. It needs mains power too– we wish the cable stretched further, extension cables are a bother. Plus UK users should hunt down a universal adapter while they wait for their delivery as you’ll need one to get started.
Doodles are both surprisingly sturdy and unsurprisingly awesome. It’s perfect for figurines, jewellery, decorations, customising cases (or GameCube controllers) and basic architecture models. ABS flexes and bends rather than snaps off – though thin sections can be fragile so best to avoid these altogether.
A mix of techniques is best. That includes doodling outlines in fat 2D on paper (with or without stencils) then peeling them off, building up parts in layers from the surface upwards as a 3D printer does and drawing details straight onto your work. You’re not going to doodle an Eiffel Tower freehand though, trust us, that needs a stencil.
Our 3D penmanship improved rapidly after an hour or so, then continued apace all week, but the first five minutes are fun, too. Anyone with a steady hand will get on well with the 3Doodler – you should see dentists with this thing. Practice makes perfect, though, and 3Doodler sticks examples of the coolest doodles on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest pages for inspiration.
Pro tip: decide what you’re drawing first or you’ll get stage fright and just spiral your ABS up and up in the air. But hey, if you draw wide enough circles you’ve got yourself a springy Slinky.
How to 3Doodle
Some more tips for rapturous 3D sketching: don’t leave plastic in the pen when you turn it off. Holding down both buttons reverses the strand in a couple of seconds. Then stick it back in next time you need that colour - WobbleWorks recommends snipping the end off to get a clean edge. We encountered some extruder problems but nothing that wasn’t solved by pushing the strand further into the 3Doodler, wiping away bits of plastic from the tip or holding down the button for a few seconds.
Black plastic is particularly tricky in terms of checking what you’ve already done and where you’re headed – you may need good light and extra focus using this colour. Also, no doodling on yourself, you (next-gen) tool – did you not listen when we said it’s 200 degrees? If you must have a 3D printed Walter White on your leg, use a stencil then stick it to yourself.
Our final 3Doodler tip? Save half a stick or so of each hue for fixes so if your beloved Charizard figurine’s tail breaks off you can just doodle it back on with another blob of plastic without it looking a hotchpotch.
What else can you stick in a 3Doodler?
Next to a regular S$1500 printer that can spit out 3D printed guitars and guns in a day, the 3Doodler might look trivial in its abilities. But plans are already afoot to expand its capabilities. Accessories and different sized tips are on the way, which WobbleWorks reckon will amount to the equivalent of different sized paintbrushes, plus it can already be mounted to a CNC arm or Lego Mindstorm for extra awesomeness.
Not only that but WobbleWorks is fielding requests from 3Doodler backers to tinker with the 3D printing pen to allow more plastics, and even different materials, to get involved. Toffee, chocolate and sugar could be on the cards – funny that, as doodling on a stencil can feel like icing a cake. Mmmm, tastes like the future to us.
If you want to get hold of a 3Doodler and you’re not one of the original 30,000 Kickstarter backers, pre-orders taken now have an estimated shipping date of February 2014. There is a rival YAYA pen being sold by London 3D printing emporium iMakr but we haven’t tested this yet and there’s no obvious advantage from the specs.
Sure, we’d like a slimmed down, battery-powered version compatible with different plastics and materials, but that’s only when pushed to be picky. Tipping the usual notion of 3D printing on its head (that’s a 3D selfie head printed at Selfridges) the 3Doodler makes truly freeform ‘prints’ without the heartache that can accompany regular 3D printers. And with its friendly pick-up and play factor combined with that wallet-friendly price, the 3Doodler turns 3D printing from an inaccessible buzzword into a genius part-toy, part-tool 3D printing pin-up that’s a joy to use.
Words: Sophie Charara
Cheap, messy and the most fun we’ve had in ages, the 3Doodler is our new favourite tech toy