3D printer printing 3D

Buying a 3D Printer Has Pros and Cons

What are the possibilities?

With the growing affordability of 3D printers, consumers with average skills can make their own multidimensional widgets on their desktop, creating new opportunities to make money.

3D printers are machines that lay down layers of construction material, such as plastic, nylon or types of metal, to make 3D objects ranging from shoes to cars. Think of the replicator from Star Trek, but slower. All that 3D printers need to shape material into custom objects are digital models or electronic files, which you can make yourself or find online.

Although 3D printers have only been around since the 1990s, they’ve opened a wide range of market niches for individuals and small businesses. This includes selling designs in an online marketplace or personal website, providing 3D print services, and printing custom objects and selling them at street fairs or online.

3D printers offer many advantages over traditional manufacturing. They’re fairly portable, allow for complex shapes that don’t require assembly, and involve cheap materials and a seamless construction process. In addition, they suffer from less material loss than other processes, don’t require numerous special tools or techniques, and offer fast, on-demand construction. 3D printers let you make objects no longer on sale or that are too small or quirky for mass production.

3D printers, though, have drawbacks. A lack of economy of scale that mass production enjoys makes printing some objects more expensive than buying them, and the abundance of free 3D printing designs online makes selling designs at a profit difficult. Also, most printers for the general public use a much smaller range of materials, such as ABS or PLA plastic, than the best professional printers, so it can be hard for people starting out to compete.

Man and woman watching a 3D printer

How to Make Money With a 3D Printer
Three main avenues of possibility await anyone aspiring to make 3D printing a business:

1. Creating and Selling 3D Designs
Once you get the hang of 3D printing, you can sell your designs as 3D models or Additive Manufacturing Files (AMFs) online. Threeding, Sculpteo, and Pinshape are online marketplaces for 3D-print designs of jewelry, table art, phone cases, puzzles, building models, board games, sculptures and other items. MyMiniFactory and Thingiverse feature large libraries of free designs, so you can study the current design space and compare your work.

2. Offering a 3D Printing Service
If you’d rather print other people’s designs than make your own, you can invest in a 3D printer and sell printing services online and to local companies. Once you get a printer, you’ll need to fine-tune all the delicate variables of the printing process, such as travel speed and layer height, to make sturdy and beautiful artifacts. Also, you’ll have to learn the ins and outs of converting files to printable machine code. Once you have a good handle on the technology, you can join a 3D printing network to expand your reach.

3. Creating Your Own 3D Products
In addition to selling design files, you can sell printed objects directly on your personal website or an online marketplace. Shapeways is a major hub for selling 3D-printed jewelry, toys, and machine parts. Other niche objects you can sell online include vases, ornaments, movie props, PC and Raspberry Pi cases, drone parts, miniature plane accessories and custom shoes. You don’t just have to sell online, either. Fairs, car shows, and flea markets provide opportunities to sell your objects in person. For high-quality print jobs, you may want to partner with a printing service or send your designs to Sculpteo.

3D printer printing a blue vase
Person holding a red 3D printed cube

Getting Started
The price of 3D printers has come down substantially in the past two years. If you are just getting started, consider getting a small, affordable machine and moving up as your skills improve. According to TechRadar, the best affordable printer for beginners in 2018 is a da Vinci Mini 3D printer. This device features wireless connectivity, nontoxic plastic, and a more compact design than other da Vinci models. It also has an aluminum print bed to handle larger prints. Amazon offers the da Vinci Mini for about $200, much cheaper than on the manufacturer’s website.

Once you have a printer, you can make 3D models on your computer using a 3D scanner, the cheapest of which is Sardauscan, or using 3D modeling software, such as the free service Blender. Free CAD tools such as SketchUp and TinkerCAD are also available, plus 40,000 open-source designs on Thingiverse.

There is a growing future in 3D printing. In 2013, worldwide revenue from 3D printing was more than $3 billion, and it’s expected to hit $12.8 billion in 2018. By 2020, there may be more than $21 billion in revenue.

Without a large investment, it may be difficult to make a full-time living creating 3D products. But skills gained with a 3D printer may lead to opportunities to sell your designs or find a niche market for unique models you create. As manufacturers make better-quality, more affordable printers and materials, the potential for people to create and share ideas will only expand.

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