On crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, inventors appeal for funds directly from the public. If you’re inspired by the inventor’s pitch, you send some money, in return for a discounted version of the invention when it is completed, or some memento from the budding company.
These sites have made a lot of entrepreneurial dreams come true, and backers get the rosy glow of knowing they helped bring a cool idea to life.
Indeed, until now, there’s been only one problem: As you considered sending in a donation, you had no way to know if the invention was actually any good. You had to trust the inventor’s video.
Yahoo Tech can help. We actually test the prototype, find out how much promise it has, and help you decide if the thing is worth funding or buying.
Today’s Invention: 3Doodler, the world’s first 3-D printer pen.
The Claim: You can draw 3-D objects. The “pen” spits out a thread of molten plastic that cools and hardens instantly, so that you can draw three-dimensional cubes, spirals, sculptures, and an endless variety of other artistic and decorative creations.
Price: $100, plus $10 a bag for strands of colored plastic.
Goal: This Kickstarter project sought $30,000 in backing. Instead, it raised $2.3 million—an overwhelming hit with the public’s imagination.
Status: With all that money, the creators were able to move ahead with making the 3Doodler a real product. You can pre-order the 3Doodler now; the company plans to ship the first mass-produced pens in March.
What I tested: The company sent me an actual, finished 3Doodler pen.
What I learned: If the 3Doodler is a pen, it’d better lay off the donuts; its design has more in common with a cordless screwdriver than a Bic. You feed a one-foot stick of colored plastic into a hole in the top; once the pen has heated to the correct temperature, an indicator light turns blue. You press a button to make the pen start extruding (spitting out) a melted stream of plastic.
There are two buttons, actually: Fast and Slow, so you can control the rate of flow.
You can burn yourself on the metal tip of the pen, but not on the plastic that comes off of it; the plastic hardens and cools almost instantly. That’s why it’s possible to draw upward—to make a little statue or a cube, for example.
You can buy two different kinds of plastic: ABS, which is strong and flexible and recyclable; and PLA, which is biodegradable, made from corn, more brittle, but much stickier. It can be tricky to “draw” on paper with ABS, for example, because it doesn’t like to stick; but you can with PLA.
The video is quite truthful about one thing: You really can make things with the 3Doodler that you can’t make any other way. It truly opens up a new realm of crafts. I love the snowman my 14-year-old daughter made. Good, right?
My family and I ran into some problems, though, that you’d never discover by watching the video.
First, the 3Doodler takes practice. Your first attempts don’t look anything like what you see in the video. You have to learn how fast you can move. You have to learn what the Fast and Slow buttons do. You have to watch the videos on the company’s Web site to learn the basics.
Changing colors requires some finesse, too. You press both the Fast and Slow buttons to back the current plastic strand out the top of the pen. You remove it, snip off its molten bottom, and then insert a new color strand into the pen. The next inch or so to come out might have mixed colors—and sometimes there’s not enough of a strand left to “back out,” so you have to just squirt it out and waste it.
Second, our test unit developed this annoying habit of shutting off every couple of minutes. During this time, the blue indicator light turned red, meaning that the pen was overheating. You have to wait a few seconds for it to turn blue again. If you’re in the middle of, say, a long vertical “line” drawn upward from your table, having the pen cut out is decidedly un-fun.
(The company advised, “Try to not use the pen for more than two hours at a time,” but this problem occurred almost as soon as we started drawing.)
Third, the plastic Fast and Slow buttons sometimes jam against the body of the pen. That is, even when you lift your finger off the button to stop “drawing,” the plastic keeps oozing out. Finally, you realize what’s happened and pry the button out with your fingernail. Seems like a design tweak or two could fix that problem.
Finally, the user guide is fairly incomplete and includes a couple of mistakes. (For example, it says that to load a new strand of plastic into the pen, you just insert it into the hole at the top of the pen. In fact, you also have to press the Fast button.)
In other words, the 3Doodler is a 1.0 device. It looks easier to use in the video than it really is.
On the other hand, it’s also a one-of-a-kind invention that makes all kinds of new creations possible. Its existence should set the minds of amateurs and professionals alike a-spinning.