Starting a 3D printing business – 5 things you need to know

16.05.2018

3D printing has exploded in the last few years – not only has the technology continued improving at a rapid rate, but it is also commercially available at reasonable prices. Printing small parts out from plastic and other materials can sound like a neat thing to do on your spare time – and it totally is. But it can also be the foundation of a business.

Freelancers with a background in engineering or design can especially benefit from that. Considering taking this fun hobby and turning it into a money maker? Here are the five most important things you need to know before you start your own freelance 3D printing business.

1. You can either print products…

There are two main ways you can go when creating a 3D printing business. The first way is the obvious one – buy a printer, set it up in your home and start sending out parts.

The main disadvantage of this business model is that it requires a good amount of investment upfront. Even if there are good 3D printers already out there that cost just several hundred dollars, the point still remains. You are going to need a decently fast 3D printer and the materials to go along with it.

The main advantage is obvious – you cut out the middle man. You are the person who creates the products and you are the one who prints them. You don’t have to wait for someone to test out your designs. You can do it quickly and fix any inevitable mistakes that will happen with your first few tries.

2. …or just design them

You can also forego getting the 3D printer itself and just stick to designing the objects you will be selling in the program of your choice. Now the main advantage here is that you will be able to use the best infrastructure available from the very beginning without having to pay for it all. There are huge industrial 3D printers available for rent – devices which can work not only with plastic, but with metal as well. Having access to that is going to be costly in the long run, but it makes for an easier start.

There is a negative side to just designing and relying on someone else. Like described in the point above, having someone in the middle will mean extra time for adjustments and overall an additional link in the communication chain that might lead to errors (and an increase in prices).

3. The target market is potentially huge, from hobbyists to other businesses

At this point, you might be asking yourself “Who am I going to sell those parts to?” The answer to that question is pretty much everyone except big businesses. 3D printing is so good because it allows you to make a wide variety of different parts on a small scale. You don’t need to create tens of thousands of identical screws for a screw factory to be worth it. Your 3D printer is flexible.

That’s why anyone who needs something small done in a custom way in a smaller quantity is a potential client of your 3D printing business. That might be hobbyists who are looking for replacement parts or adding their own flair to their models. But it can also be businesses that just need a hundred custom-designed plastic buttons.

4. A degree in design or engineering will be useful regardless of your focus

If you are going to get into 3D printing, you will need to understand two things. The first one is how to make things that hold up to the pressure required of them, even if it is their own pressure. In other words, you’ll have to learn how to build things that don’t fall in on themselves. A background in engineering can help you with that. Although it’s not a necessity, it will help you pick up the basics much faster than someone who has to start from scratch.

The second thing you’ll need to understand is how to make things that look marketable. That might sound easy, but it really isn’t. I can guarantee you that a hundred of design hours have been spent to make your phone, your laptop and even your washing machine look appealing. Your small parts won’t require that much time unless you’re trying to become the Steve Jobs of 3D printing, but making things that look great is a skill that can be learned, albeit with a lot of time and effort.

5. There are a myriad of tools and tips online – start here

Finally, getting into 3D printing, like getting into any new field, can be overwhelming. Thankfully we have the internet. Check out this Github list of 3D printing resources for a place to start. There you will find a myriad of helpful information on different printer brands, design tools, tutorials and anything in-between.

3D printing is a lot of work, but it can also be a lot of fun. As a freelancer, you can benefit from this ever-evolving technology. Good luck on your new business venture!

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