Hands on with the 3Doodler 3D printing pen: it’s lots of fun, but poorly designed

3Doodler

The 3Doodler 3D printing pen’s Kickstarter video advertises a world in which we can draw shapes in thin air and create just about any 3D object with the help of simple stencils.

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Reality isn’t far from that, but it’s not as easy as 3Doodler makes it look. After spending a week with the pen, I can say that it is a lot of fun but not something that I need to have around for more than a week.

The 3Doodler is a hot glue gun crossed with a 3D printer. It takes the printer bits that heat up and extrude melted plastic and puts them in your hand, where you draw with them like using a pen.

It’s pretty neat watching a 3D shape come together so fast. 3Doodler’s website provides some good templates for objects to draw, including the Eiffel Tower, which the Kickstarter campaign features prominently. I wasn’t quite that ambitious, so I started with a pair of glasses and a little table. I found that it helps to lay down painter’s tape to get the plastic to stick to the table; a trick taken from working with 3D printers.

3Doodler

3Doodler

I also used the pen to put some colorful touches on a coaster I made with a 3D printer. The plastic stuck to the coaster nicely. I could see this as a big application for the 3Doodler.

3Doodler

As you can see from my drawings, the 3Doodler is not for perfectionists. It produces wriggly lines that sometimes refuse to cooperate, creating bumps and inelegant shapes. But the resulting items have an organic charm that makes the 3Doodler feel like a completely new medium with which to work.

At some points, the wriggles did get frustrating. The pen sometimes puts out more or less plastic, even going so far as to pause. This was a big source of mess-ups in drawings. The wriggles got much worse while drawing straight up or over in the air. I have no idea how they drew such nice lines in the video.

An example of a drawing done in thin-air on the 3Doodler video.

An example of a drawing done in thin-air on the 3Doodler video.

The wriggles aren’t the only flaw. All the parts are packaged in a thick black plastic case. While it doesn’t feel very heavy, it is just thick enough that your hand begins to ache whenever you draw for more than a minute straight. The on buttons — one for fast extrusion and one for slow extrusion — are placed too low on the pen, forcing you to hold it awkwardly close to the table. Drawing became less about what I was making and more about my hand’s endurance holding the pen.

The pen also smells and sounds awful. Every time you press an on button, the pen’s motor whirs to life, and it’s not a discrete sound. The ABS plastic provided with the pen also gives off a strong chemical smell as it melts. It does the same when used in a 3D printer, but you generally aren’t hovering your face right over a printer directly breathing the fumes. To avoid the chemical smells, you need to buy PLA plastic.

While people will surely dream up jewelry, household objects and other mildly useful items they can make with the 3Doodler, in the end, it’s a toy. Which makes it disappointing that even 3Doodler considers it unsafe for children to use because the tip gets so hot (up to 518 degrees Fahrenheit). Every kid who has ever drawn squiggly 3D shapes with a hot glue gun would love one of these.

The 3Doodler is a great concept and, with some further work, it could overcome its flaws. It’s available for preorder for $99, which comes with 50 strands of plastic. Additional packs of 25 strands are $9.99 (which is wildly overpriced, considering you can buy 2.2 pounds of ABS or PLA for $35). There are already competitors cropping up, which will hopefully drive the price down and push for some further refinement.

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