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Saturday, October 6, 2012

How to make money with a 3D printer part 1

My last post on this topic was more reflective. This post is going to be more how-to.

So you want a 3D printer because they're cool. But you've got to convince someone its a worthwhile thing to spend the money on. So you point to me or Mark Cohen and say "those guys are actually making money with their Makerbots. If they can, so can I." That may be true, but keep this in mind: I'm a creative guy and use my 3D printer to create small batches of ideas to test the market with and Mark made his money with a cheaper 3D printer when 3D printers were scarce and everyone wanted one. So there's probably no chance you can follow in Mark's footsteps (Mark even thinks so), and I would hardly call my success brilliant.

But if you'd still like to follow in my footsteps here's what I did:
  1. Win a 3D printer for no money. Since that's not an option for everyone an alternative is to save your pennies. But do not go into debt for this, you will not make back your money quick enough for that.
  2. Have something cool to sell, either product or service. In my case it was a chess set that transforms into a robot so most the rest of this will be product-centric. But in Mark's case it a niche that is gone. I don't think selling a prototyping service is a good idea since there are companies out there you'll be competing with that have bigger advertising budgets.
  3. Set up a store front. Etsy helped to simplify that for me by saving me having to set up all the little things necessary for a store so I could focus on making something cool to sell. Ebay helped Mark.
  4. Keep stock low. There's no point making 80 things to sell if there turns out to be no demand for it.
  5. Slowly build your product line, try new things, but don't go into debt to buy filament. Wait until the old stuff sells enough so you can get the materials for the next step.
  6. If something does sell you'll need to find a way to scale up production of that thing. Change the design to print faster and more reliably or upgrade your printer to print more reliably.
In building your stock it does help to have a willing partner during the day or an understanding job since automated build platforms don't work well. My willing partner can't or won't start the next print if the last one didn't go well and I recommend if you have an understanding job you take the same mentality. Don't fiddle during your job's time, just clear the build plate and start the next job and if fiddling is necessary don't problem solve, don't think, just shut it down, and write off the rest of the day. Don't lose your job chasing rainbows, you're in this for the long haul.

In my opinion you want the Replicator (1) dual extruder, same as I have. Without having used PLA yet, I feel ABS is a superior plastic for making consumer products. Plus the dual nozzles will allow you to double your output if needs be. Both of these options are not available in the Replicator 2. But your business model may value the greater reliability of the Replicator 2. Choose wisely.

And that's where I am. Now I'm beginning some research for the next step, expanding and growing my business. The talkshopbot business forums have been a wealth of useful information that I had never even heard about before Jack Coats mentioned them on the Makerbot google group. The Etsy groups are also a wealth of information and support. I'm also reading the book "The  Incredible Secret Money Machine" which is all about making a sustainable business that you love without breaking the bank. So the next post will be where all this research takes me as I apply it.

One final word of caution. 3D printing is no longer the vibrant thriving market it once was. Sure, 3D printers are easier to use and more reliable than ever, but they're also more expensive. Chances are good your small time idea is going to fail and you may never make back the initial cost of the hardware. If you're just in it for the money you're going to be frustrated. And keep this in mind, your idea is only 10% as cool and 10% as marketable as it seems in the wonderland in your mind. If you think you can buy a 3D printer and quit your day job, you may want to rethink owning a 3D printer.


  1. Thank you for your comments here. My question to you is are you using a 3d modeling software to come up with your ideas?

    1. That question seems a bit odd. Maybe it is just the phrasing.

      Using Blender I've worked to develop and iterate my ideas, but I can't say there's anything I use to come up with them. I see a need, think on it, sketch up some solutions, and then start modeling them. There's no app that will give you ideas. You need to live life, be out there, and ideas will come.