Add to the World's Plastic Problem with Polaroid's Play 3D Pen

By Rob Clymo on at

Does the world need any more random plastic mess? That was a question we pondered over when the Polaroid Play 3D Pen turned up in the post. The planet is already drowning in oceans of the synthetic stuff, so having fun creating slightly pointless 3D plastic creations didn’t exactly make us warm to this new gadget. Nevertheless, if you’re tempted to explore the world of 3D printing then this is worth a go for around 20 quid or so.

There is, of course, a definite need for fast and efficient 3D printing in a world where we might require something like, say, a critical plastic spacer to finish off or repair an airliner for example. However, we’re not quite as convinced the planet will benefit from plastic doodles and, at best, a rickety (small) big wheel. The latter is displayed in all its glory on the box, which does give you hope that you might be able to create this minor masterpiece too.

“Create your fun,” cries the wording on the box. So we did. Well, we got creative but not in quite the same impressive fashion as the results show on the packaging. Setting up the pen is reasonably straightforward, although you do have to free the rolls of plastic wire from, you guessed it, more plastic packaging first and then unfurl the (plastic and wire) ties. There are four colours to choose from in the box; red, black, green and white.

The pen itself needs to be plugged into a power source via a supplied USB cable and once the nozzle is hot enough to melt the plastic cord, which is inserted into the top of the pen and fed down through the body to the tip, you can then use plus and minus buttons to control the feed. This is a slow process though – some might say arduous. The bonus is that the melted plastic doesn’t come out in rapid-fire spurts, but anyone who’s short on patience or has a limited attention span will get miffed pretty quickly.

If you’re keen to emulate the dazzling constructions on the box artwork then there’s an accompanying app. This lets you use templates on the screen of a tablet – a handy plastic overlay cover is in the box – in order to trace the design of your choice. Over time you can subsequently create the various beams and framework components to make a structure, but be prepared to give it plenty of time. Writing your name with a scrawny single line of hot plastic takes a few minutes, so a big wheel must surely be a long and drawn out operation.

You’ll also need more plastic supplies as the rolls in the box aren’t a bad length, but they’re not going to be enough to create anything substantial. You’ll also have to allow for wastage, which initially is quite high as you figure out how to press the on/off button and the plastic wire feed buttons (faster or slower) simultaneously. The pen itself is chunky too, like a super-fat magic marker, so is hardly a fine example of ergonomic design.

Oh, and if you’re not particularly dexterous then you’ll encounter problems with producing anything with a touch of style. Our jittery fingers managed to make everything look rough around the edges, with differences in the thickness of plastic, lots of breaks in the flow and, ultimately, an end result that had amateur written all over it. Bizarrely, the manual pronounces that “This is not a toy”, even though it looks and feels like one. The suggested age for using the 3D pen is 14 and up. Presumably that’s because of the way the tip of the pen has to get hot in order to melt the plastic wire.

The tip itself is rather like one of those electric shock buzzers that you know is going to zap you if you touch it, but the temptation to prod it with your finger in order to see just how hot it, and the gooey plastic really is, proves more irresistible than finishing off your creation. The other bonus is the acrid smell of melting plastic, which adds another edge to your creative sessions, if you’re into that sort of thing.

We even tried to fashion a few ‘real’ things, like a bike pedal, but failed miserably. Writing your name with this gadget is easy enough, but anything more complex or three-dimensional is tough, without a doubt. Colour-wise, the red and the black plastic delivers more impact than the white or rather washed out green. That said, there’s a neat bit of excitement to be had when you change over colours where one shade transforms into another as it comes out of the nib.

This is a gadget that essentially falls into stocking-filler territory (prices start at £20) whereby it looks and feels cheap, without being completely bargain-basement in feel. Unfortunately, there does appear to be some corner cutting in terms of what you get inside the box. Polaroid is certainly saving on resources with the USB power adaptor because there isn’t one included. You get the cord itself, but not the bit to plug it into the mains. Not a big deal as they’re easy enough to come by around the house, but still.

It’s a bit of fun, for sure, but Polaroid’s Play 3D pen is hardly an essential purchase. If they could come up with biodegradable materials instead of the plastic filament packs then we’d be happier. Ultimately though, this handheld gadget underlines just how important precision is for producing accomplished 3D creations. It’s probably why those 3D printers work as well as they do because it’s a chip, rather than a human, that’s telling the nozzle where to go next.

Granted, this is a creative exercise, but whether or not you’ll want to show anyone the fruits of your labours remains to be seen. Plastic fantastic? Er, no, sadly not.