Is a Home 3d Printing Business Viable?

For many of us who use 3d printers, the work to create and print 3d objects is vastly more interesting than the regular day-job that most of us have. Wouldn’t it be great to do this full-time, instead of doing a drone job that you could not care less to do. It’s a possibility but there are some major pitfalls to watch out for.

Home printing with a single printer will not yield enough production to run a small business that will sustain an individual. Adding multiple printers and building a niche can work if you have not only the 3d printing savvy, but the business savvy, too. Website, order processing, marketing and advertising are all important aspects outside of actually producing products.

If you have a vision, then don’t let anyone tell you it can’t be done. But it’s going to take a lot of work to move it from concept to execution. You can start small, as a sideline business, and ramp it up as you develop a customer base and a solid reputation. You’ll have some snags at the start, no doubt, that you’ll have to solve as you get going, but every business has that. Here are some things to think about for starting a home 3d printing business.

Rights, Rights, Rights

If you’re creating your own 3d designs (using computer aided design CAD software or 3d sculpting software), then rights aren’t going to be a problem. If you create it, you own it. I recommend that you don’t offer your designs as STL files if your intent is to sell the printed product. If, after you’re established, you want to sell the STL files, then that’s a great extra source of income.

Some designers even design STL models and sell those. The only time that they print the model is just to test that it prints correctly. They aren’t a printing business, but they are a 3d design studio. The advantage here is that you need a computer and modeling skills, a website to sell on, and little else. There’s no physical inventory to take up space. It’s a solid idea, and I’ve seen many designers do this.

For the rest of us, we need to be able to buy the rights to a 3d model to be able to sell the printed piece. Many places, like Thingiverse.Com have many thousands of free models to download, but they come with a personal use license. You can’t just take that model, print the product, and sell that product. That would be violating the license.

Instead, many designers offer Commercial Licenses that you can purchase from them. They give you the non-exclusive right to print and sell the models. You likely can’t sell the STL files, and you can’t pass on the license to someone else while you are retaining the license to print, but it will give you the ability to print and then sell. I’ve found that Kickstarter has many STL campaigns, where they sell a themed collection of STLs. Higher level pledges many times come with the commercial license. 

Otherwise, find a designer that you like, and approach them. I have done this with several designers, and all (so far) have sold me commercial licenses for roughly double what it would have been to purchase the STL sets for personal use. That’s not bad at all! 

Stay above board and don’t pirate designs to sell. It’s unethical, and it’s easy to get your business shut down and your reputation ruined. Building those things up was the hard part. Getting the licenses was really not the issue, so don’t skimp here when process and reputation are worth far more to you.

Become a Service Studio

Another way around licensing is to become a printing service. Clients with the rights to print the STLs that they provide you will upload the file to your website. You will print the model and ship the printed part back to the client. The advantage here is that you don’t need to have the license for what you’re printing – the client does. I would recommend having the client upload the license to you at the same time that they upload the STL file.

You’ll have to get quite good at inspecting a STL file and ensuring that it can print on your equipment. If it isn’t possible to print for some reason, say so up front. Don’t even waste your time trying if you have doubts about your ability to deliver. It’s better to do what you can do well, and not try every model that every client wants to have done.

If it can be printed, then just figure out a multiplier for your time and materials, and quote that as a price. Don’t forget to include your packing material, packing time and shipping in the quote. Do the printing in a timely manner, and get it shipped out. Consider insurance and tracking on the product (I like UPS shipping for this). Pass this expense on to the client, too. I just don’t trust the postal system to get my hard work to the client consistently and in a timely manner.

Do You Need a 3d Printer Farm?

If you’re planning to print full-time to create models for clients, then yes, you’re likely going to want to set up a “printer farm”, or a room with two or more printers. You maximize your profit if your printers are running all the time making high quality models that you can charge for. But printers are machines, and have to be maintained, cleaned, and even allowed to cool down once in a while. So, to maximize your efforts, consider multiple printers.

The downsides are many. The noise will go up. The fumes from melted plastic or UV resin is multiplied with multiple sources generating those fumes. Power consumption will go up with more electrical devices running at the same time, and of course, you’ll use a lot more filament or resin if you’re printing on multiple machines.

I likely wouldn’t want to rely on entry-level machines to do constant production. I would rather rely on a Prusa i3 Mk3s fleet than an Ender 3 fleet. Things like auto bed leveling, filament sensors and more reliable stepper motors and power supplies will all pay dividends for long-term manufacturing. If you’re just starting out, an Ender 3 is the perfect printer to get up and running, and to learn the ropes. When you’re ready to ramp up to higher production, consider upgrading to stronger and more reliable machines.

DLP resin printers are similar. An AnyCubic Photon or Elegoo Mars are great for starting out, but if you were to set up a print farm of DLP resin printers, I would consider dual rail Z-axis machines and potentially at least one large format printer, like a Peopoly Phenom. It can handle the same prints as the smaller machines (but with more done at the same time) and it can handle larger items which you can charge a premium for.

Website, Business License, Business Stuff!

It’s one thing to get your manufacturing down. It’s another thing to get the customers that you want who will purchase your items, and make the whole enterprise profitable. In no particular order, here are some things to consider for the business:

  • A website. I would use WordPress combined with WooCommerce to build out a great sales platform. Add an SSL certificate (the thing that makes your website show as secure – usually included free with your website hosting). If you’re new to these technologies, then YouTube.Com is your best friend. They have thousands of videos for how to set up a site and add WooCommerce. Watch and learn!
  • An email address separate from your personal email address. You can simply sign up for a free Gmail account, but it’s better to register a domain for your website and have an email associated with that domain.
  • A credit card processor. Paypal and Square both offer this service, but my personal choice is Stripe. It’s easy to sign up for and it’s easy to hook up to WooCommerce.
  • Business cards. I don’t think these are of any value any more. They’re, at best, a nice to have. Don’t spend too much money on these. Letterhead is even more in the past. Don’t bother.
  • Advertising and marketing. You can’t sell if you don’t have any customers. Getting them can be tough, and there’s likely a ton of competition out there. How do you get the data to determine where the customers are, and what they’re buying? I’ve found that joining Facebook groups that are specific to your niche is a great place to learn. It may not be a great place to advertise, but it is a good way to learn what people want and where they’re going to get it. That can clue you in to where to market effectively.
  • Trade or hobby show materials. If your plan is to go to trade or consumer shows to sell your printed wares, you’ll have to invest in some displays, portable methods for accepting payment, takeaways (here a business card may actually be of some use!) and a banner or sign that grabs attention. Look at YouTube.Com again and search on how to sell at shows in your niche.
  • Business license for your local area. Your local government may require you to register as a business and file some paperwork (with a fee, of course!) Even if you don’t incorporate, you may need to register a “Doing Business As” document so that they know that your business name maps back to you. It’s better to be above board here. Getting it wrong and getting caught can cost much more in fines and lawyer fees.

You likely won’t need a store front or manufacturing space (after all, we are talking about home businesses!) You would benefit, however, from a separate room (like a spare bedroom repurposed for your business). Depending on the ventilation and the remaining smell, you may not want to set up your computer there, as sitting in front of it for hours may be difficult if the fumes from the printing are getting to you.

The Numbers – Can You Make It Work?

My interest is 3d printed model vehicles in 1:100 scale. At this size, a person stands around 3/4 of an inch tall. So a Sherman tank is about 4 inches long. This is perfect for getting two or three of them on a small format DLP resin printer build plate – like the AnyCubic Photon or the Elegoo Mars.

Chitubox, my slicer, tells me that a print of 3 Sherman tanks will cost me just under $3.00USD (or $1.00 USD per tank) in resin cost. It’ll take 10 hours to print at the angle that I print them at, and at the finest resolution (I use a Z-height of 25 microns). So my cost in resin is $1.00/vehicle. If I print larger vehicles, I can only print one or two per print, and the unit cost is likely larger, but the largest I’ve gotten was $1.50USD per vehicle for a very large model tank.

So I’m going to estimate $1.00USD per vehicle printed (on average). It makes the math a lot simpler, too. But what can I charge to sell the model? The market for these models will bear anywhere between $5.00USD and $10.00USD per vehicle. Let’s assume $5.00USD per vehicle for this exercise. 

If I want to make $50,000.00USD per year, then I have to sell 10,000 models per year. If I work 250 days a year, I have to produce 40 vehicles a day. That’s a lot of printing, considering I can get 4 to 6 vehicles per printer in a 24 hour period. So I’d need 10 printers going all the time to produce this. 

If I was able to get $10.00USD per model, then I only need 5 printers going. If I was able to print 300 days a year and got $10.00USD per model, I need to print 17 models per day, and I could do that on 3 or 4 printers. Now it’s starting to look like a lot of work.

On top of this, I need to not only work in the business, I need to work on the business. 250 days a year might be more like it, but then again, once the print has started, you’ve got some time to get to website design, etc.

But the real question is, can I find a market for 5,000 model vehicles per year, bought, paid for and shipped out? In my mind, this means that a home business that maybe makes $10,000.00USD per year is much more achievable in the home than a $50,000.00USD per year business. Remember also, you’re going to have to purchase the rights to sell the models from the STL designer, but this is a one-time purchase (or yearly license) and isn’t that significant in impact. Some designers will charge a percentage of the final sale, and this can be better for both sides, because the designer only makes money when you do.

Turning Your Hobby Into a Job Is a Dangerous Thing

Just a simple word of warning. I’ve done this twice now. I’ve turned my hobby into a job. The upside is that you’re likely better at this than anything else you do, because you like it. The downside is that you don’t do this for enjoyment any more. It’s your job. That means going and working on your 3d printing is the same thing as going to work. So you tend to find other things to do to relax.

I can relax and learn at the same time, so I routinely spend an hour or two surfing YouTube.Com looking for relevant videos to help me with my business. I will stop and take notes in my phone’s notes app so that I don’t forget the good bits. In fact, the act of writing it down helps me remember, even if I never go back to that note in the future.

There’s always more to learn about 3d printing and printing as a business. If you find a particular video that’s helped you, save it, and subscribe to that channel. Likely, they’ll have more content that you’ll be interested in. Don’t just rely on 3d printing posts. Watch videos on website creation, payment portals, advertising, marketing, promotions and how to gain more high quality customers. Learn, learn, learn!

Related Questions

What businesses use 3d printing?

Many engineering and manufacturing companies use 3d printing to build prototypes for new tools or products. Businesses that have a large amount of variation in their product, and a low amount of sales per product, use 3d printing to manufacture only those items ordered. Hobby models and small modification parts manufacturers are good examples of these sort of businesses.

What can you make with a 3d printer at home?

3d printers in the home generally have smaller print volumes. DLP resin printers for the home tend to have print surfaces around the size of a large smartphone. FDM filament printers have larger print beds, somewhere around 12 inches square. So hobby models, kitchen tools, hooks and knobs, and smaller toys are all great examples for home 3d printing.

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