The 3Doodler is a standard 3D printer that has been transformed into a pen.
Credit: 3Doodler

It wasn't long ago that the idea of printing something in three dimensions sounded like science fiction. But over the past decade, 3D printers have become widespread and are now used to create everything from decorative baubles to robot parts to medical devices.

Still, using a 3D printer isn't always simple: The machine is frequently housed within a box the size of a microwave, and it requires technical software and, in some cases, a detailed knowledge of design. But now, a company called 3Doodler has transformed the standard 3D printer into a pen, allowing people to draw 3D creations freely in the air — without the need for a computer or any software.

In 2012, Maxwell Bogue and Peter Dilworth, co-founders of 3Doodler along with Daniel Cowen, were trying to come up with the next great kids' toy. They said they frequently used 3D printers to craft prototypes of their designs, and one night, they spent 14 hours printing a dinosaur leg, only to find that the printer had missed a section, leaving a gap in the model. [Best Educational Toys & Games for Kids]

 

The two wished they "could just take the nozzle off the 3D printer and fill in the missing gap," Bogue, now CEO of the company, told Live Science. So, the inventors set out to design a product that could do just that.

Bogue and Dilworth took apart a 3D printer and added a computer chip to the nozzle so that they could control the device. When that rudimentary model worked as a proof of concept, the team set out to streamline the design to create a more user-friendly pen, they said.

The first prototypes came straight from a standard 3D printer. "We printed the shells and the casings and everything that's held together," Bogue said.

The inventors of the 3Doodler originally set out to make the next great kids' toy.
The inventors of the 3Doodler originally set out to make the next great kids' toy.
Credit: 3Doodler

When it was done, they pulled the hot nozzle off the printer and used it in their pen. Over about eight months, they refined the design, finally producing the first version of the product, Bogue said.

In a lot of ways, the 3Doodler works like a sophisticated hot-glue gun: A heating element melts plastic, and it is extruded out through a nozzle. But glue guns use a hand pump to push the plastic out of the tip, which can make it clump. The challenge with the 3Doodler was to find a way to make the plastic flow steadily and smoothly, so the inventors designed the pen with a motor to propel the plastic filament, they said.

The heater inside the 3Doodler runs about 355 degrees to 460 degrees Fahrenheit (180 to 240 degrees Celsius) to effectively melt the most common plastic filaments (known as PLA and ABS). But at that temperature, the plastic would take a long time to cool, making it impossible to draw in the air, Bogue said. As a result, Bogue and Dilworth added a cooling fan to the 3Doodler, which brings the temperature of the plastic down to about 280 degrees to 300 degrees F (140 to 150 degrees C) when it leaves the pen, and the plastic hardens within seconds, Bogue said. [The 10 Weirdest Things Created By 3D Printing