Since their invention in 2012, 3D pens have captivated adults and kids alike.
The idea of drawing in three dimensions, literally doodling in the air and bringing your wildest ideas to life with the stroke of a pen, is a tempting one.
So tempting, in fact, that 3D pens have since found their way into homes and schools around the world, providing novel and hands-on activities for kids that can be both entertaining and educational.
Due to this popularity, in recent years dozens of companies have entered the market with their own 3D pens, with some even designing safer, low-temperature versions for kids to use.
To help parents figure out how to pick the right 3D pen, we’ve created this little guide that explores the ins-and-outs of 3D pens and discusses some of the things they might want to consider when introducing 3d pens to kids.
What is a 3D pen
A 3D pen is a pen-shaped device that, with the push of a button, extrudes (or pushes out) warm or heated plastic from its nozzle. As the plastic quickly cools down, it creates a raised plastic shape or line.
With a little time and practice, because of the nature of the plastic, a 3D pen can be lifted off a surface while still working, letting kids “doodle” in real time in the air, creating full, 3D objects that can be physically held and touched.
In essence, this lets kids draw and make models freehand in 3D, which really opens up the possibility for creative freedom and brings drawings to life in a way that ink pens simply cannot.
How do they work?
Despite some of their cool capabilities and some of the amazing things that can be done with them, 3D pens are actually pretty simple and reliable devices.
Hot Pens – Traditional 3D pens
If you’ve ever used a glue gun you probably have a good general idea of how a traditional “hot” 3D pen works.
Instead of using glue sticks however, a wire, or filament, of plastic material feeds into the pen on one end.
A mechanism inside the pen pushes it downward to a heating filament that heats the plastic until it is soft and then continues to push it out of the nozzle or tip of the 3D pen.
When exposed to air, the plastic begins to harden quickly, usually within a few seconds
|Very precise, especially for thin and detailed work||Heating element means more parental supervision for younger kids, some pen tips can get quite hot|
|Easier to produce vertical 3D drawings since the plastic hardens much quicker||Can be a little more work cleaning than cool ink|
|Generally more flexible in terms of what types of filaments they can use, which may make them less expensive in the long term|
Cool Pens- UV Light Driven 3D pens
Not everyone is comfortable with traditional, glue gun-like 3D pens, and this can be especially true of parents who may be hesitant to hand their child a device that contains a heating element, regardless of how well-designed it may be.
As a result, some 3D pen manufacturers use ultraviolet light (UV) instead.
These pens are somewhat the reverse of traditional 3D pens, and use special photosensitive plastics rather than more common ABS or PLA plastics.
These plastics come in liquid form (typically in replaceable cartridges) that, much like a traditional pen, flows down the device until it encounters a UV emitting light at the tip of the nozzle.
Once exposed to UV light, the plastic immediately begins to harden and takes on its ready to draw, gooey nature.
If you’ve had a filling done at the dentist within the last 20 years or so, the process may be very familiar. Modern dental fillings remain liquid and malleable until your dentist applies UV light, which then hardens them more or less instantly.
|No heating element to worry about, safer for young kids without as much supervision||UV light may require protective eyewear over time|
|Cures “ink” by applying UV light from built in LEDs||Liquid ink comes in proprietary cartridges that can get expensive over time|
|Usually pretty easy to clean|
3D Pen Power and Charging
When it comes to power, 3D pens come in two types: those powered by an internal battery and those that run off a plug.
Overall, there are benefits and drawbacks to both methods of powering these devices.
With an internal battery, 3D pens obviously become far more portable and less cumbersome to move around. With no clumsy cables to get in the way, kids can rotate and move the pen around a lot more easily, which can be important when building various 3D shapes.
However, they are fairly complex and draw a considerable amount of power from their batteries, tending to last around an hour or two with continuous use before needing to be recharged, which itself can take some time.
Further, batteries eventually fail and as they’re typically built-in, the whole device will usually need to be replaced at some point.
3D pens powered by a cord, on the other hand, run off a main power supply and can be used more frequently for longer periods of time. There is no need to worry about battery life or recharging, and cables are usually kept long enough to move the 3D pen around adequately or switch from person to person.
On the other hand as the power cable flexes and curls it can get in the way, which can be annoying when drawing.
Similarly, being tethered to a cord means that the 3D pen is less inherently portable as it needs to be used in some proximity to a power source.
In the end, as with most modern devices, it is a personal choice that depends on an individual’s relative preference for portability vs. consistency.
3D Pen Tips
Interestingly, better quality 3D pens allow users to change the pens tips or nozzles.
3D pen nozzles can have different diameters (producing finer or thicker lines) or different shapes (squares, triangles, ribbon, etc), which can have different effects on the doodles produced or 3D structure created.
3D pens that allow users to switch their nozzles on the fly can ultimately let those users create more complex designs and creations, both visually and structurally.
Types Of 3d Pens
Traditional 3D Pens
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) Pens
These are typically the most well known and versatile forms of 3D pens and often have a full powered heating element inside them.
Better models let users control the temperature manually, which allows for the use of a variety of plastic filament types, but in general the tips can get hot and so typically require the most adult supervision.
Much like a glue gun, these tend to be the easiest to use and draw vertical lines with, which makes them very versatile.
Low Temperature Pens
Similar to FDM pens, low temperature 3D pens use a lower temperature heating element that can be safer for kids to use (they still get hot so we always recommend adult supervision), although they tend to require a little more effort, time and care to produce detailed results .
As a result of the low temperature heating element, these pens tend to be able to be used with a narrower range of filaments, requiring more specialized plastics that soften at lower temperatures.
Cool Ink 3D Pens: Internal and External UV Pens
When it comes to UV pens the difference is largely in where the UV light source is found.
Some pens have internal UV light sources, where the liquid is exposed to UV light before it leaves the nozzle.
Others have external UV chambers, where the liquid plastic enters and hardens.
Internal UV light powered 3D pens tend to be a little better for making complex designs as with external UV pens, the plastic remains liquid until the very end of extrusion.
How much do 3D pens cost?
There are a lot of different pens out there made by many different manufacturers, each with their own specifications, capabilities and quality and so, naturally, there can be a fair range in price when it comes to 3D pens.
Typically speaking, a very low end 3D pen from a relatively obscure manufacturer can cost as low as $14, while a more robust, feature rich, top of the line model can cost upwards of $200.
Obviously, when it comes to a device that has a variety of components designed to melt plastic, customers should be careful when buying those on the extreme low end of the market.
Poor heating elements, poor thermal insulation, poor feeding mechanisms and lack of safety features can all end in a poor experience at best and disaster at worst.
And this is particularly true when it comes to devices intended for children.
Generally speaking, however, most 3D pens will cost under $150, with those designed for children typically costing under $100.
Filaments and price
Similar to ink refills in printers, those thinking about 3D pens should also consider the price of replacement filament.
Unlike 3D printers, which come in kilogram spools, 3D pen refills are generally prepackaged, either in sticks or in pre-cut and sized rings.
Most 3D pens use either standard 1.75 mm or 3mm diameter filaments, which means that with a little research users can generally find generic refills fairly inexpensively online.
However, some 3D pens deliberately use unusual or proprietary diameters, which can make them less easy to purchase from a 3rd party online and consequently makes refills more expensive.
Another factor that can make refills expensive is the type of plastic used.
3D pens most commonly accept PLA or ABS plastics, which are easy to find and usually the least expensive option out there, costing roughly $25 per kilogram.
Nylon, ASA, Carbon Fiber blends, glow in the dark and other exotic filament materials can cost quite a bit more and be harder to find, with some (like Nylon) even costing over $100 per kg.
Are 3D pens safe for kids?
3D pens are pretty cool devices and, when used properly (and in a well-ventilated area), are pretty safe. However, when it comes to 3D pens and kids, we recommend adult supervision at all times.
While kids should have no problem using them, most 3D pens on the market are not really all that safe for kids to be left alone with.
For one thing, while they don’t necessarily get as hot as 3D printers, their tips can still be hot enough to present a risk of burns. Even with special tip guards, inquisitive or bored kids may explore the device with their fingers and burn themselves in the process.
Similarly, the plastic they can extrude often remains hot to the touch for a few minutes afterwards. Colorful and gooey, this liquid plastic may be tempting for kids to touch, resulting in painful burns to their fingers.
With cool 3D pens, on the other hand, even if they don’t run hot they do use ultraviolet light.
While better made manufacturers have safety features to prevent injury, some don’t and UV light can be dangerous itself, especially if kids shine them directly into their eyes.
For safety’s sake, especially with kids, we always recommend UV-safe goggles or glasses when working with UV light, regardless of whether the manufacturer recommends them or not..
Child Safe 3D Pens
With all that said, due to their increasing popularity, there are a growing number of 3D pens specifically designed for younger kids and, when it comes to buying a 3D pen specifically for kids, we would strongly suggest that parents start with these types of pens.
The main risk when it comes to 3D pens for kids is their heat.
As we discussed above, most 3D pens have a heating mechanism that can reach some pretty scorching temperatures in order to melt a wider variety of plastics.
Those designed for kids, on the other hand, are specifically designed to operate at a lower temperature, by not producing as much heat (especially at the nozzle) and by using more specialized plastic filaments that don’t require as much heat to melt and that don’t come out quite as hot.
In this way, an accidental (or deliberate) touch by small hands to the nozzle or freshly extruded plastic won’t lead to a bad burn.
These models also tend to have features like protective plastic around the tip or nib of the pen to prevent curious fingers from getting burned or, in the case of UV light pens, deactivating when turned upside down.
Finally, these child safe 3d pens tend to use less toxic, PLA or even FDA-approved food safe filaments, which significantly reduces exposure to noxious fumes or potentially hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
With all that said, we still strongly feel that parents will still need to monitor their children’s use of these 3D pens as they can be delicate, contain moving parts, electronics, liquids and/or plastics that can potentially be hazardous to the overly inquisitive child.
3D Pen Filaments
There are a lot of different types of plastic materials and blends that 3D pens can use.
Each type of material has different characteristics and can be used for different purposes.
They may look different, melt at different temperatures, be more durable or more brittle, be easier to bend, be more water resistant, and much more.
The most common types are described below:
|PLA – Polylactic Acid||The most common filament for hobbyists, PLA is usually a bit stronger and heavier than ABS.|
It doesn’t take as much heat to soften and can be quite easy to get started with for beginners.
It is more brittle and prone to cracking than ABS, but doesn’t release as much noxious fumes and/or particulate matter.
|ABS -Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene||More durable and lighter than PLA, ABS is used for more serious 3D applications.|
It can withstand impact better but does require more heat to soften, and requires far more ventilation as it can release noxious and potentially harmful fumes and particulate matter.
|PCL – Polycaprolactone/low temperature bioplastic||With a very low melting point (60˚C) PCL is more common on low temperature 3D pens.|
It is usually derived from corn, potatoes, and even sugar cane, and is biodegradable, non-toxic and usually releases less noxious fumes than alternatives.
Most 3D pens will accept a couple types of filaments.
Those designed for kids specifically will tend to favor PCL or PCL-like blends, due to its ability to melt under lower temperatures, meaning the pen can run at lower temperatures and thus reduce the potential for serious burns.
A Note about Filaments and Fumes
As you might imagine from melting plastic, some filaments (ABS in particular) can give off unpleasant and sometimes even harmful or toxic fumes and particles. These can be dangerous when used in badly ventilated areas, especially for kids.
Ideally, parents should look for pens that use less toxic bioplastics like PCL that, in addition to melting at lower temperatures, produce fewer (although don’t totally eliminate) harmful gases, particles and fumes and may smell more pleasant altogether.
As with 3D printers, 3D pens should always be used in a well-ventilated area to minimize exposure to harmful fumes or particulate matter.
It’s also important to keep in mind that most filaments aren’t food safe, they have small cracks and holes that can harbor bacteria and as such aren’t to be ingested or used for kitchen or foodware.
Why should I consider a 3D pen for my kids?
Encouraging Creativity: Bringing Doodles to Life
3D pens can be an excellent way to encourage kids to explore their creative side.
Like with a regular pen and paper, with a 3D pen kids are encouraged to doodle, sketch or even create artwork, and essentially let their imaginations run wild.
Unlike a regular pen, however, with a little skill, kids can take their drawings into the third dimension, extending their drawings up and off the page and turning their ideas into actual, plastic models.
Kids who are otherwise uninterested in art or creative activities may change their mind quickly when they see their ideas come to life in this way.
Encourage systematic thinking with prototyping and modeling
With a little work, some imaginative thinking and planning, 3D pens can be used to create working models of a child’s inventions.
After planning and printing a blueprint, students can “draw” and fill in various parts and components and then glue those parts together, ultimately bringing their very own invention to life.
In this way, 3D pens can help students learn to be more systematic in their thinking.
Students must not only come up with an invention, but they are challenged to think through its various components, come up with a plan on how they can fit together, and even plan out what size nozzles they’ll need to use to get thicker and thinner printed lines.
Even if a child is only using a 3D pen casually doodle and play around, the gooey nature of the plastic extruded and the speed at which it cools means that, much like a puzzle, they’ll often have to think through and plan out what they’re doodling more than with traditional pen and paper, lest it all come tumbling down.
Safer and Easier to use than a 3D printer
Even with the issues outlined above, 3D Pens tend to be a lot more kid friendly than 3D printers.
3D printer extruders tend to run hotter (around 260 degrees C -or 500 F), have an additional hot bed that reaches up to 110 degrees C (230 F), and have a lot more moving parts to catch fingers than 3D pens.
Similarly, 3D pens are easier to use in a home setting. They are an independent device, meaning that there is no need for any computers, software or files to use along with them, which simplifies their use significantly, especially for kids.
They’re also far more portable and have far fewer moving parts than 3D printers, meaning there’s less that can go wrong over time.
Cheaper than a 3D printer
3D pens tend to be a more affordable option for families than a 3D printer.
Generally speaking, a decent quality 3D pen will cost under $100, with less versatile but safer kids models even coming in at under $50.
In contrast, decent quality, hobbyist 3D printers can run several hundred to a thousand dollars or more.
They’re just plain fun
At the end of the day, 3D pens are a novel and captivating device for kids.
With the push of a button, 3D pens extrude brightly colored plastic that can be teased into a variety of imaginative shapes and kids can just have a fun time playing around with it and creating random objects, even if they don’t produce anything in particular.
Is there an educational benefit to 3D pens?
Not only can 3D pens be fun and encourage kids to explore the limits of their imagination, they can also be used as an educational tool and can be easily integrated into a variety of lesson plans.
Aside from being fun new technology to play with, 3D pens can add a hands-on learning component to nearly any subject.
In the sciences, for example, they can be used to help kids create and explore 3D models of various scientific concepts, such as various atomic structures or the cell and its internal structures, that can really bring these more abstract ideas to life.
In addition, the device itself can be a good way of introducing concepts like additive manufacturing in engineering, prototyping, material properties, plastics and heat resistance and more.
In math, students can use a 3D pen to better explore basic and complex geometric forms, recreating and interacting with them, exploring concepts like 2D/3D shapes, tessellations, area and perimeter calculations, and even making and exploring graphs on a 3D axis.
The use of 3D pens as part of a lesson plan isn’t limited to STEM, either.
Studies of history can be brought to life, as kids draw and explore various important events and figures. They can even draw and recreate various artifacts and structures from history, such as constructing miniature swords, castles and more.
English Language Arts can be turned into a hands-on study as well. For example, with 3D pens kids can have a more interesting way of practicing writing, creating plastic letters and sentences they can use as room decorations.
With reading comprehension, illustration exercises can become a lot more exciting, with students recreating scenes, events, characters and even settings in 3D.
In short, 3D pens can be a versatile addition to many different subjects. With a little imagination and creative thinking on the part of parents and teachers, they can offer a hands-on learning component that can not only make learning more fun and interactive, but help kids get a better grasp of sometimes confusing abstract concepts.
About the Author
David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.