Makers of 3-D printers often promote the devices as ideal for rapid prototyping, saying they let users quickly and inexpensively turn sketches into physical models without complicated hardware and software.
But recently, creators of new 3-D pens have said for many applications they’ve gotten printers beat, using a similar technology to extrude plastic and let users actually draw three-dimensional models from the tabletop up.
“We say there’s about a 20-minute learning curve, and after that 20 minutes, it’s just a matter of practice,” says Daniel Cowen, a cofounder of WobbleWorks, the Boston-area company behind the 3Doodler pen.
When WobbleWorks launched the initial version of its pen in 2013, after raising more than $2.3 million through a Kickstarter campaign, it was the only 3-D pen on the market. Since then, the company says it’s sold more than 130,000 pens.
Its users range from architects sketching designs and tweaking traditionally 3-D-printed models to teachers printing Braille text for visually impaired students. And artists using the pen have drawn everything from to models of the Brooklyn Bridge and Eiffel Tower to the body for a remote-controlled plane.
“We’ve just seen amazing growth,” says Cowen. “What we struck on was this latent need to create things in 3-D, but there was no easy way to do it.”
The company recently raised more than $1.5 million in a second Kickstarter campaign to fund the next version of the pen, and it’s recently been joined by a number of rivals racing to create smaller, more efficient and easier-to-use 3-D pens.
“We’re essentially trying to be the first cool ink [pen] and the safest 3-D pen to market,” says Steve Cho, marketing manager of Future Make, which says its forthcoming Polyes pens will use photosensitive polymers that can be extruded using low-temperature blue LEDs instead of ultraviolet lamps, designed to make them safer for young users.
Cho says the company—which so far has raised more than $128,000 in an ongoing Kickstarter campaign of its own—plans to start manufacturing and shipping its first pens next month. The Polyes pens are designed to be precise enough for adult makers and safe, easy, and fun for kids, who’ll be able to experiment with plastic “inks” that glow in the dark, inks that change colors at different temperatures, and even scented inks, says Cho.
“Kids are inherently creative,” he says. “All the testing we did with kids. They were able to create all these really really intricate and creative structures that we wouldn’t even think of.”
Even for adults, Cho says 3-D pens make the prototyping process less intimidating, since it’s possible to create a model simply by drawing, without having to master computer-aided design software.
“Anyone who wants to conceptualize something in their head—what they used to do is draw on paper, but now they can draw free-axis, free-X-Y-Z, free form in space,” he says.
The Polyes pens likely won’t be the only cool-ink pens on the market for long, Cho acknowledges—the Singapore-based company CreoPop raised more than $200,000 in an Indiegogo campaign last year and additional venture funding in early 2015, and has said its own cool-ink pens should ship in April.
The new 3Doodler pens are also scheduled to ship this spring and are planned to be a quarter of the size and half the weight of the original models. The new pens will also feature a new drive system that extrudes more smoothly and quietly than the existing model and uses 50% less power, says Cowen.
They’ll also have a cruise-control style feature that lets them continually extrude without the user needing to hold down a button—an option Cowen says the company added after being surprised how long some users operate the pens in one drafting session.
“We have artists that are using it for five, six, seven hours straight,” he says. “We never thought that people would use the pen for hours on end.”
The company also plans to work with educators using the pens in the classroom, helping them share ideas and lesson plans with one another. Teachers are already using the 3Doodler to teach subjects including art, math, and science, with students modeling shapes, bridges, and even the chambers of the human heart, says Cowen.
That may lead to some competition with the kid-friendly Polyes, but Future Make’s Cho says he believes there’s plenty of room in the marketplace for multiple 3-D pens.
“It seems like there’s enough pieces of pie for everyone,” he says. “This is just a really dynamic and exciting space, and I just really want to see where it goes.”