Being a tech entrepreneur enthusiast most of my life and now an active 3D Printing player in the industry has allowed me to be privy to the way this innovative technology is applied at the B2B level, B2C level and hobbyist realm. For the purpose of this article, let’s take a deep dive into how an aspiring entrepreneur or hobbyist with access to three-dimensional computer aided design programs and machinery can start figuratively printing money. (We will not be covering how to ‘literally’ print money because you can technically do that with a regular 2D printer and we’ll all end up in jail, so let’s get back to the task at hand).
Prototyping for Professionals as a Professional
Virtually all industries that rely on physical objects in one form or another have a niche space where 3D printing is being applied. This innovative technology is utilized in producing cars, jewelry, houses, food, medical drugs, implants, prosthetics, tools, clothes, dentures, sex toys, accessories of all types, and the list goes on and on. Prototyping is arguably the best way for a hobbyist with a 3D printing skillset to monetize his or her efforts because there are many professionals in different industries constantly coming up with ideas to improve tools / gadgets and are looking for someone to help bring their ideas to physical form.
Let the local businesses in various industries in your area know of your capabilities and make sure to inform them how to reach you if they want to bring their vision to reality by way of your skillset. We work in the medical space and we’ve been approached by surgeons, physical therapists, dentists, and periodontists with offers to design and 3D print prototypes for them. 3D Printing is perfect for this because it allows for rapid prototyping. We can design and print out a prototype and then the professional can use the prototype in real life and realize which modifications to the initial idea would make the invention even more useful and novel. Making tweaks to a prototype design and reprinting it does not come at a large cost and you can make great margins on this type of business model. The best part of it is that you are not just monetizing your ability to manipulate the files and print the items, but you are also monetizing your computer-aided software design capabilities. Also, if you do a good job, the word-of-mouth referrals come rolling in.
Of course there is a lot of competition in this space, but that is why reaching out to local businesses and communities is best. For this type of work, professionals prefer to talk to someone face to face so that you can brainstorm with them and ensure that both of you are on the same page. This is far more difficult to accomplish if this type of work is outsourced to another counrty. Keep in mind that prototypes do not need to be identical to the finished product, they essentially serve to be a proof of concept which is why printing something in plastic, nylon, or resin for a product that will eventually be metal, glass, etc. is cheaper for the client. Professional prototype creating firms charge exorbitant amounts of money for their services and you can take advantage of this by undercutting their prices while still attaining a worthy profit margin for yourself.
If you’re unfamiliar with rapid prototyping, some benefits to a prospective client include:
- Figuring out a feasible, realistic physical model.
- Improving on the design after feedback and real life application by others of an initial prototype (product iteration).
- Modifications to the design coming at a low cost since tweaks are easy to do once a design has been created.
- Quick turnaround time on the design and print
- Helpful insight from you based on your experience and expertise
- Planning out exactly which materials to use and adjustments to make prior to approaching investors, distributors, or going to market.
Design and Print Your Own Unique 3D Product Line
Set up shop and sell your unique designs and useful prints on Shopify, Etsy, Ebay, and Shapeways. The amazing advantage is that you can be in charge of your own supply chain. Most companies mass produce their products to take advantages of economies of scale and then run into inventory problems. You are unlikely to have your printed products piling up in your closet because you can essentially print on demand and efficiently manage your inventory.
Make sure to keep an eye out for popular trendy items. You can jump on the gravy train by printing accessories for these trendy items or replicating non-patented ones with your own unique design tweaks. Also, don’t forget to reach out to your local coffee shops, gift stores, etc. and see if they’re interested in selling some of your products. This way, you will not have to solely rely on online orders. The downside of selling on the retail level is that anyone who is hosting and selling your product will always take a considerable chunk of the revenue. That being said, you’ll get to save valuable time and money on shipping costs and the next time that customer orders your item it may happen on one of your online stores rather than the retail store they originally purchased from.
Intellectual Property Issues
The rarely spoken about dilemma associated with 3D Printing and selling your own products is that if you don’t have a widely recognizable brand or large following, others can easily steal your design by replicating the design themselves. Redesigning the object in a CAD program is not the only way someone can steal your design and start selling knockoff versions. One can simply scan an item using a 3D scanner like the Matter and Form 3D Desktop Scanner which will import the digitized design straight to your computer and can have you printing someone else’s design the same day. Quality 3D scanners can be purchased for $500 – $2,500 and can construct very precise three dimensional objects of your choice.
The appropriate way to protect against this is by obtaining a design patent. This is usually a costly undertaking especially if filing with the help of a professional; the fees will run you in the ballpark of $1,500 – $3,000. Design patents are typically mostly useful for large companies with deep pockets and savage lawyers with itchy lawsuit trigger fingers. For a very small company and even more so for a hobbyist or entrepreneur, threatening/fighting others regarding their designs infringing on yours is a tedious and exhausting endeavor. Design patents are also tricky in the sense that they are not broad in what they are intended to protect and so one can slightly adjust someone else’s design and not be liable for infringement on the original person’s design. If this is confusing, you’re likely thinking of ‘utility’ patents which can cover a broad scope (crazy expensive too), but utility patents and design patents are two very distinct categories of patents and you can brush up more on the differences here: Upcouncel.
Be of Service to Others in Your Community
You can also profit by setting up a functioning facility at your home with one or more printers and then spreading the word to the local community. You can be the one to accept other people’s designs and then transfer the files and print them at a premium or do the whole process including the designs also at a premium of course. The key to being successful in this type of endeavor is spreading the word to a lot of the local libraries, vocational schools, gifted kids programs, engineering clubs, entrepreneur meetups, relevant small businesses, etc. You’d be surprised how quickly a few small opportunities can turn into big opportunities.
Find Education Opportunities or Create them Yourself
One relatively lucrative venue to apply your 3D printing skillset to is the education sector. While community colleges and universities don’t pay a lot to teach courses in this subject matter unless you are a full-time professor (not an adjunct), local workshops are actually quite lucrative. Talk to the local gifted student programs, libraries, rec centers, etc. You would be surprised to learn how much parents would be willing to pay to have their children learn and interact with this emerging technology that will inevitably keep evolving and be more prominent when those kids are ready to enter the workforce. You would also be inspiring more kids to become 3D Printing enthusiasts which is a beautiful and noble act.
Become A 3D Printing Technology Consultant
Arguably the most lucrative per hour avenue you can adapt your expertise to is becoming a consultant for others who need the guidance. There are many small businesses looking to streamline their supply chain process and gain more versatility that could benefit from your knowledge in the space. You can consult them on topics such as which type of printers is the best option for them, which CAD programs they should use, how viable and feasible their idea or plan is, address some concerns and highlight any flaws they may not be aware of with their limited knowledge in the field. You can also make money by connecting your clients to the sellers and manufacturers of the machines and software programs the same way a sales person would collect commission if they were selling on behalf of a business in this space.
Develop a Beneficial Business Model and File as a Nonprofit
Do not erroneously assume that a nonprofits with a tax exempt status is only meant for companies that are donating goods to the impoverished or building schools in Haiti. The reality is that many businesses fall under the non profit umbrella including educational institutions like Harvard and Stanford, churches of Scientology, and even the NFL for 73 years before they finally gave up their tax-exempt status. The qualifications to be a tax exempt nonprofit corporation are more broad than you may think and you can read more about it here (howstuffworks). The notion that you cannot make money working for a non-profit is also false. You are allowed to make the same amount of money working in a non-profit as you would in a for-profit business as long as it is a reasonable salary for your position.
So if you think of a 3D Printing business model that entails a helpful mission, educational, research based, adds to the environment’s sustainability, etc. you can take the extra steps to file as a nonprofit. Some popular examples of nonprofits in this field are companies that produce printed prosthetics for humans and animals, print sustainable housing, teach the technology and software to kids, and perform research for applications of this science in the medical field. There’s a multitude of advantages of filing as a nonprofit, we’ll mention a few below:
- You’ll have a tax-exempt status which means donors will be more incentivized to give you money and you don’t need to pay taxes on the revenue so you can reinvest any surplus of money back into the business.
- You don’t need to solely rely on consumers or subscribers to your business for financial stability since you can file for government grants and tons of scholarships and contests which big businesses hold yearly as a part of their corporate social responsibility practices.
- You do not have to pay your board members and your actual staff will be more motivated to go to work and be dedicated to the company mission since it has a rewarding, fulfilling purpose.
Help Small Businesses Market Their Brand
Small business owners take great pride in their brand and care about brand recognition. Making them aware of your skillset can land you many small gigs. These companies love to recreate their logos and slogans in three dimensions and hang them up in the office, on doors, set up as desk ornaments, etc. If you do a great job and pitch some extra ideas, they may start utilizing your 3D modeled creations as promotional products for advertising campaigns or as logo/slogan ornaments on keychains, refrigerator magnets, rearview mirror hangers, etc.
Having your designed products be a part of a company’s advertising campaign is not only great because the order they place will be relatively large, but also you are promoting your business while at the same time promoting theirs. Everyone wins! In our experience, once you land one advertising campaign deal with one small company, it becomes much easier to land similar deals with other companies because you’ll have experience and credibility in the space. Get comfortable with pitching your idea and being okay with getting rejected more times than accepted. The success of every business and every entrepreneur worth their salt was built on many tolerated failures and rejections.
Not Yet an Expert in the Field?
If you’re not quite ready to get your feet wet and would prefer to continue to work on your skills and credibility, then we have a few recommendations for you.
Our suggestion is to master one versatile intermediate to advanced CAD program rather than be a jack of all trades and a master of none. We highly recommend Fusion 360 not only because the software is very user-friendly and constantly updated with bug fixes and new features, but also because it’s free for educators, students, and entrepreneurs. Thank you Autodesk! There’s a plethora of other CAD software to choose from and you can find a helpful list here (3D Programs to try).
You should also be a master of at least two types of popular printers and preferably those which print in two different materials so that you have more options to offer to your clients. To start, we recommend going with a printer that prints in plastic and another that prints in resin. You can find a decent overview of printers and their pros and cons in this PC Mag article. Which printers to go with depends on your budget and frankly your tolerance for going through tedious manuals and YouTube tutorials. The juice is worth the squeeze though and remember to find ways to keep yourself motivated to keep learning and mastering your chosen software and printers.
Why should you target Small Companies and Entrepreneurs first?
The larger, more established companies most likely already have an efficient in-house operation or out of house supply chain in place. Also, it’s much harder to get your foot in the door. However, if you establish yourself on the small business circuit, then the larger companies will be able to find you if they’re looking for you especially if you’ve done a good job setting up an online presence regarding your experience with the various small businesses you have successfully served.
Don’t Sit on Your Skills Too Long, Take Action!
There’s quite a lot of talented 3D Printing enthusiasts with machines set up in their basements twiddling their thumbs and ready to jump on any idea that’s making money. So beat them to it and go get after it!
Check out some smaller projects PromoAmbitions ran through HEAL3D below…
Feel free to watch this video we created on the discussed above methods, we plan to put out more content on our YouTube channel regarding this in the future.