Toy maker Mattel announced at the New York Toy Fair last week that it's about to release an affordable 3D printer to the market, which will allow kids to design and print their own toys at home - no more having to make do with stock-standard G.I. Joes and Barbies.

While that might sound like one hell of a marketing gimmick, the new product is actually pretty cool from a tech point of view, because it links to a surprisingly easy-to-use app that lets kids design toys on an iPad, phone, or computer before printing and assembling the parts.

The ThingMaker will retail at US$299.99, and while it's not the first - or necessarily the best - affordable 3D printer to hit the market, it is one of the first to bring the design and creation process together in such an easy format.

Right now, most 3D printers come with complicated software that can take days to learn how to use. And even once you've mastered it, the user interface can be pretty complicated.

But this app takes more of a Sim-like character-creation approach, allowing you to customise existing character templates, and start your own characters from scratch once you've had some more practice.

"The toys can be customised with different colours and textures, and will bend and twist in the app so you can get a feel for how they'll work after they've been printed," reports Sarah Perez over at TechCrunch.

Once you've completed your design, the ThingMaker app lets you export the STL file, which you can then print either using their 3D printer, or any other one you have at home.

And the process isn't limited to humanoid dolls - you can use it to create dinosaurs, robots, jewellery, skeletons… and pretty much anything else you might want to play with.

When it comes to printing, it's not as simple as a doll coming straight out of the machine - the ThingMaker instead prints your new toy in a range of parts that connect together through ball-and-socket joints.

Depending on how complex your creation, this process can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours, and kids can watch it all happening through a clear door.

If the name ThingMaker sounds familiar to you, it's because Mattel released a product with the same name in the '60s. But back then kids had to make their own toys by pouring a liquid plastic-like material into moulds that were heated up and then cooled. The device has now been reimagined for the 21st century.

"In today's digital age, it's more important than ever for families to transcend the digital world and make their ideas real," said senior director of Mattel, Aslan Appleman. "ThingMaker pushes the boundaries of imaginative play, giving families countless ways to customise their toys and let their creativity run wild."

So far, there aren't a huge amount of details out there on the specs of the printer, which will go on sale this autumn in the US. But Mattel announced at the Toy Fair that the device will use a hard PLA filament, and initially there will be around two dozen colours available. In the meantime, the app is already available to download and use with other 3D printers.

While we don't normally like to give big brands a free plug, I have to admit it's pretty exciting to see a toy maker getting serious about teaching kids how to use new technology, and express their creativity with it. What better way is there to nurture a budding scientist?