A lot of what we do on this blog is aimed at 3D printer hobbyists – people who think additive manufacturing is fun and exciting. We do look at more business-oriented subjects too, of course, so in general we think it’s a pretty well balanced window into the wonderful world of heated beds and hot ends. Looking back through our archive, though, it just struck me that we haven’t really covered how to bring the two sides of the topic together, and make money out of your hobby.
Other people have done this, of course. There’s no shortage of articles out there about how to make money with your 3D printer, but a lot of them are long on enthusiasm and short on practicalities. They tend to list a lot of ways in which you theoretically can generate income through your 3D printing hobby, but don’t really give you the tools you need to actually do it. Let’s look at some of the common suggestions, and how realistic they actually are.
Sell 3D Printed Items
People buy a lot of plastic things. You have a 3D printer that can make plastic things. Why not make money by making plastic things and selling them to people? What could possibly go wrong?
Well, a lot of things actually. On the other hand this is one of the more realistic ways to earn money from your 3D printer, but there are some things to be aware of before you set up an online shop and start printing stock.
Firstly, are you going to have anything that resembles stock? One advantage of 3D printing is that you don’t need to hold much in the way of inventory. If you look at online wholesalers like Alibaba you’ll find that, to get a decent price on most consumer goods, you need to buy a thousand at a time. That isn’t an issue here; you might be able to print on demand, or at most maintain a small inventory that’s enough to cover a couple of days’ average sales.
Keep in mind that 3D printing, as a production method, works best for small production runs or customised items. If you plan on selling a thousand plastic widgets a day, don’t even try to print them. Use your 3D printer to perfect the prototype, then use conventional manufacturing to make your actual stock. It’s quicker, cheaper and will usually give higher quality results. Honestly, I don’t recommend trying to sell a line of 3D-printed items unless you’re offering a lot of customisation.
Where you can really profit with 3D printed items is by producing bespoke objects – basically, set yourself up as a small printing service. The simplest way to do this is by just printing people’s designs for them; they send you the STL file and some money, and you send them a 3D-printed object. If you’re going to design objects to order make sure your CAD skills are top-notch before you start, because otherwise you’re going to come unstuck in a hurry.
Leasing Out Your 3D Printer
I’ve seen this suggestion on a few blogs – and honestly, I’m not sure why. Yes, there are people who need a 3D printer occasionally but don’t want the outlay of actually buying one. No, unless you have a pretty high-end printer to offer they’re not going to be interested in yours.
I don’t think owning a single 3D printer, and leasing it out occasionally, is a viable business model. There’s too much to set up. You’ll need to market your services, and do you really want to go to that time and expense just so you can rent out one printer whenever you’re not using it yourself? You have to arrange contracts, and some way of holding a deposit just in case the printer comes back broken (or doesn’t come back at all). This can be viable if you’re in a position to buy ten high-end printers and lease them out to businesses, but as a sideline for a hobbyist? Forget it.
Teach People How To 3D Print
I’ve read a lot of articles about how you can make money teaching people how to 3D print, even if you only know the basics yourself. I have some serious doubts about this. Unless you’re a real expert, the simple truth is nobody’s going to pay you to teach them. You might get a few free pints for showing your mate how to level the bed on his new printer, but that’s probably all you can expect.
If you are an expert you could try making some instructional videos and putting them on You Tube, then signing up with Patreon. Between YouTube ad revenue and Patreon subscribers you can make some useful money this way – but competition is fierce, so your videos will need to be very slick and compelling. Bear in mind you’ll be going up against people like Naomi Wu, who is much more photogenic than you are.
Blogging About 3D Printing
Is it possible to make money blogging about 3D printing? Yes it is. Is it easy? No it isn’t – and you can trust me on this! There are a lot of 3D printing blogs, and it’s even more competitive than YouTube. On the bright side, you get to compete on the quality of your writing – you don’t have to worry about cameras, lighting or how you look in a bikini top. If you can build up a lot of traffic you might be able to monetise a blog and generate some income, but it’s definitely an uphill struggle.
Overall, if you want to make money from your 3D printer you can forget most of the money-making schemes you’ll see suggested online. Your best option is to focus on what 3D printers are actually good at – producing one-off or limited-run items. Master the art of producing quality prints, market your ability to do that (try local businesses as well as online) and you could get your 3D printing hobby to pay for itself, or even produce some useful extra income.