This is the 3D printing hobbyist community at its finest.
That's it: We've hit peak tardigrade. The internet has embraced the virtually indestructible, microscopic "water bears" and now even Jim Rodda, the creator of this housecat-sized, 3D-printable tardigrade designed to carry Barbie into battle, reckons interest in the microorganism has reached its zenith.
Rodda, who also goes under the alias Zheng3, designed the giant microorganism as part of his "Faire Play" series, which has previously seen him make Barbie 3D-printed armour and a Roman chariot. He explained that the doll's new tardigrade steed, which is available for download on a pay-what-you-want basis, was directly motivated by the little beast's burgeoning popularity.
"Some time in the last six months I just realised that media attention towards tardigrades has been increasing," he said. "On Twitter they're everywhere. I believe that this will be the year that we hit peak tardigrade."
Rodda is motivated in his designs by a desire to make iconic "girly" toys more "fair." He first tried to design some 3D-printed glitter cannons for his four-year-old niece's My Little Pony toys, but turned to Barbie after engineering difficulties. The idea, he said, was to "Make it so that Barbie wasn't just about pretty clothes and nice hair, and let her express a different side of her personality—the empowered girl."
Riding on the back of a giant, clawed tardigrade is admittedly pretty badass.
The 3D printing project is a hobby for Rodda, who has a day job as creative director at an independent games company but is known in the maker community for his 3D modelling website and participation in related forums. He said 50 people had bought the tardigrade design when we spoke, a couple weeks after he'd announced it. The design is creative commons licensed, meaning people can adapt it to their own wishes, and Rodda was keen to point out that he also relied on work by other people in the community, for example to create the joint system on the beast's legs.
Tardigrades are all around us but are too small to see, so his model is based on images he found, which he translated into a finished design with a little help from his knowledge of microbiology from college and largely governed by what he called the "rule of cool"—"If it looks good, do it."
He used Autodesk's Maya modelling software and a Type A Machines Series 1 printer to print most of the tardigrade parts for his own print-out. But there are still limitations to 3D printing tech that held Rodda's dreams back a bit.
"I'm actually a little disappointed, because I wanted to make it bigger," he said. "I'd actually like it to be about twice the size it is, because right now it's kind of like a Shetland pony relative to Barbie; I would prefer if it was more like an elephant."
At its current size, it already takes hundreds of hours to print the complete tardigrade on Rodda's printer, so a much bigger version wasn't feasible. But he added that the model is scalable, so if the tech catches up, you could potentially even print one the actual size of an elephant.
Rodda said that his own kids are not so interested in playing with their dad's dolls, but the general response to his work reveals at least a niche demand for his battling Barbie accessories. "It ranges somewhere between bewilderment and radical joy, depending on the person," he said of feedback he'd gotten.