Selling 3D Printed Items – How to Make Money with Your 3D Printer
3D printers have often been described as manufacturing facilities that can fit inside a garage workshop. It also follows that 3D printers can be used for commercial applications, even for small-time hobbyists. Selling 3D printed items has been common in the last few years, but is it still a game that you can enter now?
Making a profit from selling 3D printed items involves identifying a market, developing your 3D modeling skills, and establishing a price range that considers the time, effort, and material that goes into your products. You also need to be familiar with the legal issues concerning the act of selling 3D printed objects.
There are certainly still opportunities to earn with 3D printing, but there are also lots of 3D printed products out there that hardly get noticed. What can you do to help make your 3D printing venture a success?
Identify a market
The first thing you need, before you even buy any 3D printing equipment, is an idea. Can you come up with a 3D printed object that lots of people will need or can benefit from? Does it address a fundamental issue that people commonly encounter? Perhaps you have a hobby that can be massively improved by having a unique accessory, particularly one that you cannot buy off the shelf.
Another large market for 3D printer products are pop culture fans. Is there a particular film or TV series that is hugely popular right now? Do you know of any nice cultural reference that has a dedicated and passionate fanbase?
Most people who have been successful in selling 3D printed items can come up with new ideas frequently. Fads, by their very nature, are temporary. Even an innovative idea will lose its novelty once more people can replicate it.
If there is a single factor that can drive your success in the 3D printed market, it will be your creativity. You need to be able to come up with new ideas every now and then, lest you slowly lose your market. Keep in mind that not all of your ideas will be huge sellers. Among a handful of ideas for 3D printed items, you will be lucky to profit from two or three.
Make a model yourself or download it?
One hurdle that makes 3D printing intimidating is that it’s significantly harder to develop the skills for 3D modeling. If you already have 3D modeling background, then you’re fortunate – coming up with something new would be a lot easier.
If you have no experience, however, the good news is that it’s a lot easier to learn 3D modeling nowadays. Platforms like Sketchup and TinkerCAD are free to use, very friendly to beginners, and have enough tools to make simple but functional 3D models. Both of these are browser-based, so you don’t even need to download anything.
For the more advanced users, software like Blender and ZBrush provide a more sophisticated suite of tools and offer a greater degree of design freedom.
Another option is to simply download a model for 3D printing. Sites like Thingiverse, Cults 3D, or CGTrader are great for this strategy.
Just keep in mind that not all free-to-download models can be used for 3D prints that will be sold commercially. Take a look at the licenses associated with each model before deciding to sell them. A huge majority of these free models are not meant for commercial use.
If you are unsure whether a model can be sold, then it’s best to get in touch with the person who made the model. In most scenarios, an agreement can be made that allows the selling of the model while the maker gets a cut of each sale. The maker of the model can also help drive up your sales by linking to your product on the model’s download page.
Legal issues in selling 3D printed items
We briefly mentioned how a lot of commercially sold 3D printed items are marketed towards fans of popular culture. You have probably already seen replicas of movie props or action figures modeled after popular comic book characters being sold online. At this point, you may be wondering if it’s legal to sell 3D printed items modeled after the likeness of copyrighted works of art.
The short answer is no, it is not legal. Selling any 3D printed design covered by Intellectual Property Rights without the permission of the rights holder is illegal. So is selling a design that purposely imitates a copyrighted design, even if you made the model yourself.
If these laws were in place, then why are there so many 3D printed accessories being sold online that were clearly modeled from very popular intellectual properties? By the same logic, why do we see fanart of popular characters being sold online or in conventions?
The thing about selling items that violate copyright is a problem only when the copyright holder goes after you. For instance, Disney probably does not bother sending cease and desist letters to all the online sellers who peddle masks, busts, shirts, and other accessories modeled after Iron Man.
Should you decide to sell 3D printed items modeled after the likeness of a popular character, then you do so with the accepted risk that you may receive an order to delist the product eventually. This problem will likely be magnified if you start gaining huge profits from the product.
How can you avoid this problem? Simply by creating your own work that does not imitate an item or character from popular culture. You can also create designs that are inspired by designs in the popular domain. Nobody holds the copyright for characters like Santa Claus, Count Dracula, or any of a host of mythological creatures. There are still lots of places to get your inspiration from without violating copyright laws.
Which type of 3D printer should you get?
If you’re just starting out in 3D printing, then you really only have two options – Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Stereolithography (SLA) printers. Both of these types of printers have become popular for beginners because of how inexpensive they have become through the years. There are desktop models for both FDM and SLA printers, so you also won’t need a lot of space.
The main difference between the two is that FDM printers use filament as raw material and that SLA printers use liquid resin. Either option has benefits and drawbacks. They are equally valid for those who want to start selling 3D printed items.
The debate between FDM and SLA is complex enough to take up an entirely separate article. Choosing between the two is even more difficult now that SLA printers have become a lot more affordable.
FDM printers are typically cheaper to operate, require minimal post-processing, and have larger build volumes. On the flip side, they are also slower and will require more troubleshooting and maintenance on account of having more moving parts.
SLA printers have two huge advantages – they are faster and are a lot better for creating highly accurate details. However, the 3D printing process using SLA is notoriously messy because of having to handle toxic liquid resin. SLA printing requires considerable work in post-processing and even in the disposal of resin-contaminated items.
FDM printers are ideal if you’re printing functional items that do not need a great level of detail. When aesthetics is the focus of your products, then SLA printing is clearly superior. Most 3D printing professionals end up having both since it helps them offer services to a wider customer base.
Where should you sell?
Most 3D printing sellers list their products in any of the following – Amazon, eBay, or Etsy. Do your research for each platform before signing up as a seller, as there are key differences between them.
For instance, Amazon is an excellent choice if you anticipate selling a huge number of your products as you can simply forward them to Amazon Fulfillment Center so you don’t need to deal with shipping the products yourself. However, Amazon does take a hefty commission from sales, so you might need to factor that into your pricing scheme.
On the other hand, people go to Etsy for more creative or bespoke items. This is a great platform if you have no plans of mass-producing your designs.
If you have created your own original designs, then you can also sell them via Thingiverse. Take note that only the digital designs can be sold via this platform and not the actual 3D printed items. This makes the profit margin a lot lower, but you won’t be doing much work once the designs are online.
Conversely, you can just offer your services via social media. This is actually a very good strategy if you plan on offering print-as-you-order services for customized designs. The great thing about using social media is that the platform does not take a cut from your sales and that you can offer a more personal service to potential customers.
How much should you charge?
The price of your products should take into account all the costs that went into producing them. Just to make sure you don’t miss anything, these are the costs to consider:
- Equipment cost
- Maintenance cost
- Cost of supplies
- Marketing and promotion
- Cost of electricity and other utilities
- The cost of your time
Most of these are fairly obvious to any entrepreneurs, but the 3D printing market is notorious for undercutting the competition. For this reason, the best strategy is always to come up with a product that nobody else offers. That way, you can dictate a profitable price without having to worry about the price offered by other sellers.
Most people only sell 3D printed items as a side gig. Even if this were the case, you need to assign value to the time it takes to make your products. This includes the time spent on 3D printing, post-processing, and packaging. Post-processing is typically the most time-consuming step, especially if your products need to be sanded, polished, and painted.
If you want to earn money using your 3D printer, then it’s no longer enough to just own a 3D printer. Now that so many people can afford to buy 3D printers, the market for 3D printed items is close to saturation. This means that you need to stand out with more creative or innovative products.
One thing that most people who offer 3D printing services tend to ignore is the potential consequence of selling products based on copyrighted properties. Just because a lot of people get away with it does not mean that you will be as lucky. Just to be safe, we suggest steering clear of selling any products that possibly violate copyright and intellectual property laws.