How to make money with a 3D printer
If you own a 3D printer, you may not be using it to its full potential printing the occasional nick nack. 3D printers are powerful machines that have the ability to rapidly prototype physical models. These can save companies thousands of dollars and weeks of time in the development phase. This article aims to show how you can turn your hobby into a business. Here are some tips for how to monetize your 3D printer.
Especially if you are in a metropolitan area, there will likely be several 3D printer owners near you. This is why you need to find a specific niche of 3D printed items to specialize in for a selected customer base, as well as a strategy to reach them. From our experience, those who take the approach of "we can print anything" end up getting less work than those who take a more focused approach at a specific niche. Find ideas for a few different niche areas below:
Prototypes and Marketing Samples
This makes up almost a quarter of all global 3D printing. Even a simple desktop-based 3D printer allows you to create visually appealing and durable parts very suitable for professional use. If you are looking to create functional prototypes, you want to ensure your printer is capable of printing higher strength and higher temperature materials like ABS, PETG, Nylon, Polycarbonate, or other specialty materials. These generally require a heated bed and a hot end capable of up to 280C. This empowers you to create prototypes and marketing samples for businesses who prefer an expert taking care of the job rather than doing it in-house. So you can make extra fees right from your desk at home or even at your full-time job with small footprint machines like an Ultimaker 2+. You can set yourself apart by choosing a printer that is either fit for larger build volume such as the Lulzbot TAZ 6, a variety of materials such as the Lulzbot Mini or the Ultimaker 3 for high resolution printing.
Scale Models and Toys
The second largest application area of 3D printing globally. Fans and hobbyists have a great demand for custom and unique parts so if you can offer these for a good budget, you are likely to acquire a good amount of customers. A targeted approach to areas such as board games, train or car models, or a new a growing area is parts for drones.
Art, Design and Fashion
About 5-8% of all 3D printing is done for artistic purposes. So if you are a proficient 3D modeler, profile yourself as an artist, product or fashion designer and sell both your printable models and 3D printed items. Some printers excel at creating highly detailed objects while others are fantastic for flexible fashion items such as accessories, apparel, belts and shoes.
Many industries had once thriving companies/products that are no longer in existance or have been discontinued. This means there is no longer a direct source for replacment parts. This is especially evident in areas such as the automotive industry. You just can't go to your local Chevy dealer to get many spare parts for an old 1964 El Camino any more, but you can print them.
Where can I find my first customers?
As demand for 3D printing of parts increases, so to does the number of platforms that connect customers to printing services. Here are a few places to help you find your first customers:
Freelancing Platforms - On websites such as Guru (1.5M users), Freelancer (17M users), Outsourcely, and Upwork (17M users) you are able to connect to businesses who will hire you to do 3D printing services. Overall these are more oriented to professional research and development services so you need to have a decent know-how about the design and engineering side of your work to be valuable to customers. Sometimes you will be asked to sign a legal non-disclosure agreement so having a 2D printer + scanner is also a valuable asset. These platforms are very simple to use and are great to establish long term relationships with clients. The disadvantage is that you are restricted to communication over the platform and there is a fee involved for each payment.
3D Printing Bureaus - Large agencies such as i.Materialise and Shapeways have a pool of designers that create 3D models for their customers. Through forums and e-mails you can come into contact with potential clients that often will pay well for high quality models and prints. At Shapeways it is also possible to elaborately set up your own shop to sell your 3D models and even make them customizable. This is great for applications requiring high visual detail such as jewelry, scale models, figurine sculpts and fashion accessories.
3D Printer Hubs - Enlist your 3D printer as directly available on platforms such as 3DHubs, Treatstock and MakeXYZ. After you set up your profile page, you can enter all the details of your 3D printer, including your filaments, and customers will be ready to place an order. Pricing settings on 3DHubs are especially extensive as you can set pricings per material volume but also for additional features such as detail level and build volume. Treatstock and MakeXYZ also enable you to setup a shop for your 3D models and finished prints. These platforms are a great way to attract your first customers and the only cost is a percentage of each sale. That way, if you and your printer aren't making money, it won't cost you anything.
3D Model Marketplaces - Websites for selling 3D printable models are CGtrader, Pinshape, MyMiniFactory, Cults3D, Turbosquid, and Skrimarket. These allow you to upload and present your products in several formats and set a price that in some cases is negotiable. Some platforms will only allow you to share your models for free but this can offer an opportunity for extra exposure. You can base your monetized work on existing models such as from Grabcad or Thingiverse, but make sure that you are not violating the creative license and ideally obtain written consent from the model owner. Some websites offer design contests and 3D modeling assignments as well if you want to make some extra income, and if you are into 3D scanning, you can join MyMiniFactory’s ScanTheWorld initiative and derive a small fee per scanned object.
Art Marketplaces - The largest marketplace to sell your personally created goods is Etsy, so you can easily create your customized shop and start making money. This is a great platform if you have an item you designed yourself and you want to sell the 3D printed item online. We have seen many stores having success with items such as lithophanes, lamp shaes, keychains, and more. The downsides are that Etsy takes a small fee per sold item and it is a very competitive marketplace so you have to keep your margins low. Alternatively, you can open a store on Bonanza, Storenvy, or eBay.
Kickstarter Platforms - You need a great new product idea to start a small business through kickstarters since you are going to need to attract backers. But even for simple products, these are great platforms to get your ideas to a sizeable market and start generating revenue. Reaching out to other startups with your 3D printing service is a good idea as well since having a prototype is now a requirement for every Kickstarter campaign.
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Additional resources to help your new 3D printing business
Facebook Business - This gives you a great overall touch point being able to link videos and images of your prints as well as provide news updates. You can set up paid advertising campaigns and link to an Instagram account as well.
Youtube - is a good way to centrally store all your video content while gaining monetization benefits once you reach over 10,000 views. With little investment you will be able to reach both very specific and broad audiences, if you have great content. It is best to make content related to a specific area of 3D printing such as reviews, technical analysis, tips, or tutorials.
LinkedIn - You can join specific groups related to 3D printing and develop contacts related to your professional field. Ad campaigns cost much more than on Facebook Business but you are able to reach a very targeted audience.
Local stores that allow you to display your business cards or ads on bulletin boards at their counter .
As more and more businesses are making innovation and design central to their endeavors and seeing their turnovers amp up accordingly, now is the time that they are starting to integrate 3D printing in their workflows. So increasingly, small artists, designers and entrepreneurs will be able to make a benefit by working with 3D printers. We at Print your Mind hope to have given you a useful guide to get started!
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