If you missed out on the fidget spinner craze, it was the pinnacle of 3D printing for profit. Makers were churning these out by the dozens and selling to coworkers, gas stations and even their children’s friends. For those that jumped on this fad early, the machines more than paid for themselves during the span of a few months.
We may never see another trend quite as lucrative, but there are still plenty of ways for the creative entrepreneur to turn the hobby into a fun side business. Home based manufacturing won’t make you rich, but it does open a world of opportunity for those that wish to pursue it.
The 3D Printing for Profit Facebook group is an excellent resource to get started, home to more than 12,000 members that share and discuss ideas. For those looking to make money with 3D printing, this is a great community of like minded individuals. Make sure to check the pinned FAQ, it contains several in-depth videos, a Discord Channel and other helpful information.
1) Etsy Store
As the marketplace for handmade goods, Etsy is the perfect solution for a 3D printing entrepreneur. They have turned arts and crafts projects into a sustainable business model, from planters to props, you can find just about anything for sale.
Unfortunately this isn’t an untapped resource, there are almost 50,000 listings for the term “3D printed” at this time. Don’t be deterred by the numbers though, it should encourage thinking outside of the box instead. Many of these sellers poach from the same pool of existing models on Thingiverse, forcing them to compete for the same business as well. A creative approach to this market can be the difference between a lucrative venture and a couple sales here and there.
When it comes to your line of product(s) there are several options available. Those with CAD or modeling experience can simply create unique designs to sell without restriction. Otherwise, for those like myself who lack in the artistic department, we can still purchase royalty free models or use existing designs instead.
Royalty Free Models (Paid)
There are plenty of websites that sell 3D assets for commercial usage. These paid designs can range anywhere from several bucks to hundreds of dollars depending on the source. Some of the most popular options are included below, offering a wide range of models to choose from.
Before making the purchase, always double check the license to ensure that commercial usage is permitted. It’s also a good idea to target designs which are specifically built for 3D printers, not just any model will work and most digital goods have a no return policy attached. The creator will often emphasize this in the title and/or description and include an STL version of the file for printing.
If you are in search of a model but can’t find an existing design that meets your needs, most sites will also provide some type of modeling service as well. CGTrader offers this in the form of freelance jobs, and Do3D has in-house professionals that are available for hire. These may not be the most cost effective solutions, but there are plenty of starving artists on the internet that work for a reduced fee (such as /r/3drequests).
Thingiverse Models (Free)
STL sharing websites such as Thingiverse are prime hunting grounds for Etsy sellers. There are thousands of designs available, many with no restriction on commercial usage. You can refine the search page to include the License Type, which helps to narrow down the results and exclude those with a non-commercial tag.
Using a free model library for profit however is controversial to say the least. Many shops simply rip the creator’s intellectual property, then sell it without any acknowledgment of the person that made it. While this doesn’t necessarily violate any rules, it is heavily frowned upon for obvious reasons.
Instead, a good practice is to remain transparent and provide full disclosure of the source material. At the bare minimum, make sure to credit the designer in your Etsy listings with a link to their Thingiverse page. I would also encourage anyone using Thingiverse models to tip the creator as well, where 5-10% percent of each sale will promote sharing and maintain the status quo.
2) Local Markets
Local markets often go overlooked, yet remain one of the most profitable sources of income for unique items. Depending on your area, there is vast potential to reach thousands of interested buyers with little to no competition. These channels are populated by an older demographic that you won’t find on sites like Etsy, but they are intrigued by crafted items they won’t find in stores.
In contrast to online sales however, these transactions consist of an in-person cash exchange. This can save you time and money when it comes to shipping & handling, but also requires a bit more finesse to close the deal. When meeting the prospective buyer, questions will inevitably arise and a salesman persona can serve you well.
Launched less than two years ago, the Facebook Marketplace has nearly eliminated digital classifieds such as Craig’s List. Seller profiles are linked to their personal Facebook account, complete with full name and picture, which inspires a bit more confidence between the two parties.
While you may find several listings for “3D printed” in your area, these will likely be few and far between. One of the most notable problems is that most sellers don’t know the market, where they attempt to sell niche items like costume props and other miscellaneous goods.
Anyone can post a generic “3D Printing Services” listing, but the average consumer won’t have a clue of the capabilities. With your audience in mind, specific products will often see a much higher rate of success, where you exhibit items they may be interested in purchasing.
Using the above photo as an example, quirky planters at $25 have considerable potential, but the cosplay prop at $130 is a niche market item. 69% of active daily users are women, 62% of which range from the ages of 45 to 64 years old. To avoid wasting your time and resources, use the stats to determine what is worth selling in a local capacity.
Buy & Sell Groups
Prior to the Facebook Marketplace, most cities created their own Buy & Sell groups on the platform to serve a similar purpose. Frequently populated with clothing, home goods and various local services, the user base is quite active and shopping to find a deal. Unique one-off items can often spark increased interest, especially at certain times of the year such as holidays.
The week leading up to Mother’s Day, I printed a few extra statues (Thing:1541512) and listed them for sale on our local Swip Swip groups. Within minutes, I had countless messages from interested parties. To my surprise, the first few sold out within an hour and I was rapidly creating more to meet the demand. Despite the low price to cover material costs and print time, it more than took care of my expenses and bought a few more rolls of filament as well.
Most orders were placed by women in their 50s and 60s, where I encountered a wide range of questions during the exchange. Some were curious as to how 3D printing worked, others thought the product was ceramic from the photos. It was the first time any of them had seen a 3D printed item though and the sheer enthusiasm made for a pleasant experience.
Social media is a great resource for direct sales, but the networking aspect can be just as profitable. Brand awareness is key for organizations of all shapes and sizes, investing large amounts of time and money into self promotion. Since we have the unique ability to create objects on demand, this service can prove useful to just about everyone.
When starting out, you may want to compile a sample portfolio to demonstrate your past work. A website or Instagram with product photos can drive interest, but make sure to have at least several items they can hold in their hands. It helps to know your audience and what will appeal to their industry, but even basic prints will do the trick. Some potential ideas for promotional materials you can make are…
For big points, consider learning basic CAD software to customize designs for their brand. Even a novice can generate basic shapes with a logo or text, and this goes a long way with potential customers. Do your research ahead of time and know their market, then plan your items accordingly. Some groups to consider would be…
My town has an abundance of all three, where I look for unique trinkets that appeal to their interests. Bands for example appreciate guitar picks with their logo imprinted, while an artist would cherish a 3D printed business card. In some cases, a basic keychain with their name is all it takes. Think outside of the box and use your imagination to illustrate what you can do for their brand.
These are designs I recently made for a local band, demonstrating some ideas for custom promo items. Their logo was a bit too complex for small guitar picks, but worked exceptionally well as a 2-tone keychain. Experiment with different ideas to figure out what works for you and give your clients a foundation to build upon moving forward.
3) 3D Printing Services
The average person doesn’t have a clue how 3D printing works, let alone where to hire someone should the need arise. Websites such as 3DHubs recognized this as an opportunity, operating as the middleman to connect buyers and sellers through a commercial platform. Rather than operate the machines in-house, they rely on 3rd party users to register as Hubs. In doing so, your 3D printers can be contracted out to fulfill paid jobs for a percentage of the sale.
Unfortunately 3DHubs implemented several changes last year that prioritized certain shops over others, causing the 3D printing community to withdraw their support for this particular site. This did however inspire others to take their place, spawning more than a few competitors in their place.
While these don’t even begin to cover the range of options available, they are some of the most prominent choices as of late. Shapeways is hands down the premiere service, but MakeXYZ and TreatStock continue to grow with time.
On the upside, there is no reason to limit yourself to a single platform. You may find that you favor one over the rest, be that the payout structure or number of jobs you receive. For those motivated to pursue 3D printing as a commercial venture, these services can supplement your income substantially when used in conjunction with other sales platforms.