The Business of 3D Printing

3D Printing and Scanning with HP Sprout Pro Capture Stage

3D Printers in background: Dremel IdeaBuilder (L) and Lulzbot Mini (R). HP Sprout front and center.

3D Printing is a cool hobby, as any reader here knows. Some of us want it to be more than a hobby; we want a 3D printer to pay for itself, or more, to be profitable. Many so-called hobbyists are slowly looking for ways to build a successful small business.

Some of the questions I hear:

  • How do I find people who want to 3D print, but who do not own or are not interested in owning a 3D printer?
  • Where are the people who want to buy 3D printing services – from design to modeling to printing?
  • I opened an online storefront, but sales are slow. How can I get more sales?

I began compiling a big list of places (and methods) that can help you earn with a 3D printer. It is a work in progress that I intend to share shortly. This list may eventually become an ebook, or a series of webinars, to help 3D printer owners grow their income.

If you want to hear about it, you can check the blog for updates or subscribe to the 3DP Owner mailing list here. Or message me via TJ McCue on Twitter. Read on for the full story.

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Back in 2010, when I first started looking closely at 3D printing, I was also working as a technology editor for a well-known small business site. During that time, I would frequently review a wide range of services, build a list post of everything I could find and share it with readers. By 2011, the one thing I heard repeatedly from small business owners, especially the people who made things, was they wanted me to build a list of marketplaces where they could sell their wares. It was an immensely popular post and two years later I was still receiving emails asking for more. So in 2013, I went out and scoured the web again to find an additional two dozen outlets. This may sound like a pretty easy task, but it took a lot of time and care to vet these various websites and so forth.

Then, as I spent more time in 3D circles – from scanning to modeling to printing, I heard it most from those wanting to go pro and sell time on their 3D printers. In 2014, we created a large grassroots project called 3DRV, sponsored by Autodesk, HP, Stratasys, Nvidia, and a few others. We traveled around the USA talking to makers, inventors, and 3D fans of all types. We met hundreds of entrepreneurially-minded people. Some were successfully building Shapeways-branded stores and selling their designs or creations; others were building more traditional businesses.

Their stories made me start asking what other options existed to make a living with a 3D printer. 3D Hubs started about that time and looked like the perfect solution, a matchmaking network, of sorts, to connect people who owned 3D printers with those who needed to print something. Some of those “hubs” are doing very creative and smart things to build a 3D printing service business.

What I found after the 3DRV national roadtrip was that there are plenty of people trying to build a side business out of 3D printing. Many of the people who have contacted me have an online presence on 3D Hubs, Etsy, or Shapeways (sometimes all three) and they are slowly growing their revenues. But they want more business, of course, like any of us who have a business.

In these one-one-one conversations, I would share examples of savvy small business owners who were profitably selling 3D printer services. One 3D modeling expert had helped a home renovation contractor do some incredible reproduction work (think moldings, special trim). Several online store owners were profitably selling their own 3D designs and creations; some were deep niches you might not have considered.

In other industries, I have found ways to help people market and sell their services; I want to do that in 3D printing, or what I like to call small urban manufacturing. My plan with this post is to jumpstart a conversation. It might later become an ebook and/or webinar series, but for right now, the plan is to share new markets (or offer a fresh look at existing ones) where you can sell your designs, models, and prints.

More so, for those who want to sell printer time, consider this a growing list of ideas, vetted with other printer owners I know, so that you can go into your local community and market your 3D printer services. There may be an idea here that sparks another one for you, or an idea closely related, but in a niche or specialty that others have not considered. Rather than just wait for orders to roll in from the internet, you can diversify your prospect list with more local business, too.

For sure, 3D Printing is a terrific hobby. There are lots of wonderful things you can do with a 3D printer. But this post is for those who want it to be more than a hobby, as I said at the beginning of this post. If that interests you, please get in touch and share your story. I will do my best to include it here and other places where I write and work.

Again, we would love your ideas, your participation, and to hear your successes. Subscribe here.

Resources, Ideas, and Motivation for 3D Printer Shop Owners