3D printing hasn’t quite hit its stride. Its primary appeal seems to be its novelty. 3D-printed sex toys are far from perfect or accessible. But as I saw first hand, their pioneers are hoping to change that.
Noah Kaplan is here to get his dick scanned. He gestures wildly, his bathrobe peeking open as he rapidly recounts why he's doing this, going on and off the record about his sexual preferences. I can barely keep up. We’re in a room at the Eventi Hotel in Chelsea, where Kaplan is sitting in front of an impressive camera that can scan in three dimensions and create a virtual model of any object. Today, that camera is going to be used to scan Kaplan’s penis from several angles. Experts will then composite those scans into one image that will be printed out using a 3D printer, resulting in an exact, three-dimensional replica of the 26-year-old's dick. This is the very beginning of the 3D-printed sex-toy industry, though you can scarcely call it an industry yet.
Operating the camera is Chelsea Downs, founder of the New York Toy Collective and personalized sex-toy innovator. Downs tells me that she got into the sex-toy business not because she sought to make personalized toys, but because the one she wanted didn't exist. "And I was tired of complaining that it didn’t exist," she adds, "so I just decided to go ahead and try to make it.”
But when she called around to manufacturers for information on production, she got quotes up to $50,000–more than she could afford. So she began to look into ways to create a new kind of toy, one that could be made to her exact specifications, but in small quantities and cheaply. The answer involved creating a prototype, scanning it, then 3D printing it.
After familiarizing herself with the process of creating toys and co-founding the collective, she saw the potential for personalized sex toys created through scanning and 3D printing. Her company partners with 3DEA, a 3D-printing pop-up shop also in Chelsea, to offer the personalized toy service that Kaplan is receiving today.
The 3D-printed sex-toy movement is still in its infancy, but that’s what makes it so interesting. The objects created from the printer aren’t typically body safe. Sometimes this is the result of the type of material used by the printer—not all plastics are intended for internal use—but it's also a function of the printing process itself. 3D printers create objects by using plastic filament to build upwards, but the constituent filaments are still visible in the final project. A printed object isn’t totally smooth. Its rough texture would not only be uncomfortable inside any orifice, but also possesses small crevices that would support bacterial growth.
So most people creating sex toys take the printed object, create a cast from it, and then pour silicone into the mold to create the final project. The printed object, thus far, is only the intermediary to achieving a personalized or personally designed sex toy. The dream of envisioning a toy, designing it, then printing out a functional copy is still a futuristic dream.