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3D Printing as a business...does it make CENTS?

Discussion in 'Business Models, Niches, Industries' started by AnAverageJoe, Mar 30, 2018.

  1. AnAverageJoe
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    AnAverageJoe Worse than a drunken sloth Read Millionaire Fastlane I've Read UNSCRIPTED FASTLANE INSIDER Speedway Pass

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    While I was exploring ways to get prototypes made for a product I discovered 3D printing and love the potential 3D printing has. I've searched the forums looking for threads about 3D printing as a business but haven't found many. I know @Vick has a thread on the Inside, but unfortunately, I'm not on the Inside yet. There are threads and posts about using a 3D printer for your business, but I couldn't find one about 3D printing being your business. So my apologies if this has already been talked about.

    Anyway, I've been contemplating for a while now about getting a decent 3D printer and creating products and services to sell to consumers/businesses. I went through the CENTS, and came up with this.

    Control: I'll be in control. I can sell on channels like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy, but my business won't die if one of those channels goes south. I can sell on my own online store, as well as retail. No MLM or pyramids here.

    Entry: You obviously have to buy a 3D printer, and a decent 3D printer at that if you want to do this as a business. Then you either need to learn the software to design the items or outsource that work for you. I found a 50-hour course on Udemy that teaches the software that I'm going to check out. Not everyone and their grandma can get set up overnight and start doing this, so this should pass entry.

    Need: The need for 3D printing is everywhere. Medical, auto, tech, business, jewelry, novelty, toys, consumer products, even food and biotech. There is a need, I'd just have to figure out which need I am going to fill and how to fill it. I have a business running right now that I could make custom jewelry for, I have an idea for a novelty use for it, and I could also do prototypes for businesses. Maybe help even Fastlane businesses for a discount ;) The need is there.

    Time: This is where it gets murky. I'll need to invest a lot of time into the business at the beginning to learn everything and then run the business. As the business grows I can reinvest money into equipment, software, and employees that will take a load off of me. Most businesses start this way.

    Scalability: The sky is the limit. Your only limit here is your imagination and the amount and quality of machines you have and the number of people working for you. Definitely scalable.

    Did I miss anything? It seems to check out. I'm worried I have a confirmation bias, so I'm wondering if anyone here is running a 3D printing business, or has any opinions on it. Thanks guys.
     
  2. Waspy
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    I’ve thought about it before from print on demand type business model (people send you their designs to be printed)

    My concern is the radpidly reducing cost of printers. Once they become household, will anyone need your service?
     
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  3. AnAverageJoe
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    That's one of my concerns. I know there are some really cheap printers now, but from what I understand there's still a little bit of extra work with those compared to the higher end printers (extra calibrating, sanding, etc.). Maybe we're still a few years away from them being really mainstream?

    Also, the FedEx Kinkos near my house always has someone in there. I can do 95% of what they can do in their store from the comfort of my own home, but people still use those services. Some people won't want their own 3D printer, or won't justify the need for it if they can go somewhere else to get it done for them. I think they'd still rather pay for the convenience of having someone else do it for them.
     
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  4. GoGetter24
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    The 3D printer is just a tool though. It's a means to an end. You need the end.

    One cool idea would be a service that fixes random broken parts. We've all had the experience where one part of something breaks, glue is useless, and the item is now useless. A service where people send in their broken esoteric parts, and you image them with something, and then send back an intact 3D-printed version of the broken thing, could be a potential play.

    One thing I've noticed though is normal 3D printers are just toys: what they produce has no structural integrity whatsoever. So it'd require a real 3D printer. Factory grade stuff.
     
  5. Fastlane Liam
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    My friend bought a £300 one just for fun (hes not an entrepreneur or anything)
    Hes a dungeons and dragons kind of guy,

    He was showing me this gate he made which looked amazing, was only about 10cm x 10cm. He had to leave it on all night to print just that.

    So you'd probably need a high end one (which may work for you - just look into printing times)
     
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  6. Real Deal Denver
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    This is absolutely correct.

    I was going to buy a 3-D printer for some projects. The consumer ones are a waste of time. They're slow and the supplies cost too much. Like the inkjet printers back in the day. I don't know what the cartridges are now, but I remember them being $40 or more - and that's what pushed me into laser printers.

    That's sometimes referred to as the razor blade business model. Sell the razor cheap, and gouge em for the custom snap on blades. You've now got a life time customer that you can gouge for years. Brilliant!

    But, back to 3-D printing. There are business' already set up that do great work. This would be a VERY tough business to compete in. You're going to have to discount yourself to compete.

    So the simple answer is no.

    But, but but but... doing the design work that the 3-D printers need to produce a part... that's a completely different animal.

    CAD is not difficult, but it's sure not something that anyone is going to learn to make one or two parts. You can make a KILLING doing the design work. Then, let your "competition" print it out, and you can do well. NEVER give them the design specs. You designed it, you own it. This will ensure repeat business for parts.

    Certain business' pay huge money for parts. Medical, for one example. I know a guy that makes stainless steel couplings for plastic lines - one at a time. They have to be flawless. He spends a lot of time grinding and polishing them to a mirror finish. I throw that out there as just an example to show that side business ventures for parts do exist.

    Personally, I'd look into those rare "manufacturing machines" that are very specialized. Call the companies that make a product using these specialized machines and ask them what parts break. Then remake those parts better and stronger. Companies to call might be any mass production food or beverage company. Motorcycle and RV sales. Plumbers. Appliance repair shops. Even manufacturers direct! The list could be huge! I was an office machine tech for many years. I regularly bought custom parts that were made to replace known weak parts of certain machines. They didn't make a fortune from me, but when they came up with something, over 1,000 dealers were buying it. Then we're talking serious cash. I'm sure their markups were well over 100%. Some machines were just made bad. Certain parts would break, and I'd hate to replace it with another weak part, because the cycle would repeat, in time.

    Look into doing some custom work, like a gas cap or head light with a 3-D skull on it for Harleys, and you could even launch that nationwide... get things chrome plated, and you will be the man that all bikers will know about - and they'll find your website to buy some cool gotta have it stuff. Harley people are not cheap. They are an ideal market in many ways. There you go - a perfect business model! Clone that concept for other "high-end" products out there, and you'll do well.
     
  7. AnAverageJoe
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    Thanks guys. Looks like a major theme is that I'm going to need to get a higher end printer (I was prepared to spend a few thousand) and that I should look into fixing things that break. That's a pretty good idea. It's not sexy, it's not a business an internet guru is going to make an online course for, but it definitely solves a need and could make some money.

    I live in a tourist town, and we have a few motorcycle festivals every year. So I get to see first hand the ridiculous amount of money these guys (and gals) put into their bikes and the hobby in general. Definitely some money to be made there.

    I was also planning on learning the design side of it as well. I feel like having a 3D printer without knowing how to design something is a waste. I know there are some free programs I can use to get started, and I'm sure there are plenty of courses on Udemy I could take to learn the ins and outs.

    Thanks for the responses guys.
     
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  8. Fastlane Liam
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    Ay good luck man, keep chipping away at it.
     
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  9. GoGetter24
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    Don't buy a printer yet; the business idea isn't validated.

    I remember a story about a guy who started the first online shoe shop. He had no idea if it would work. So he simply went to a normal shoe shop and bought some, then put them for sale online at exactly the same price. People bought. So only after that did he invest properly.

    It still sounds like you just want to 3D print things, for fun. That's not a business.

    A business would start with the market, not a gadget. You'd look for demand for a particular 3D printable part or type of part. You'd then middleman that with an existing commercial 3D printing service. Only after that was proven, would you consider buying a 3D printer, and only after factoring in the value of that (reduced lead time vs capital costs etc).
     
  10. AnAverageJoe
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    AnAverageJoe Worse than a drunken sloth Read Millionaire Fastlane I've Read UNSCRIPTED FASTLANE INSIDER Speedway Pass

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    You're absolutely right. There are a couple local places I can use to print for me until or if I find a business that sticks. I can have a website up for one of my ideas in the next couple of days to start validating that one.
     
  11. 404profound
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    Who has the most need that is least likely to buy a printer for themselves?
     
  12. MJ DeMarco
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    Admin Post
    That's not "murky" that's freaking normal.
     
  13. SanMateo
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    I have two clients who have 3D printing operations. Client #1 does additive manufacturing and controls the entire process, but is having issues scaling due to the lowering of demand. The lowering of demand is due to the larger manufacturers are now vertically integrating 3D printing into their operations to lower production costs. Client #2 sells 3D printers and carbon fiber printers. They are making more money selling the devices than the additive manufacturer. Remember, the gold rush in California? The man selling the pick axes and pans is the one that struck it rich. Hope this helps.
     
  14. AnAverageJoe
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    This helps a lot actually. Thank you.
     
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    3D print on demand services exist already, though I have never used one and can't comment on the cost / profitability of such a venture. As for the business dying due to reduced hardware costs, well I have an inkjet printer.. I can print my own t-shirts, business cards, books, whatever... but I don't. I'd rather pay for ______ reason (convenience, quality, cost of ink replacement, volume, options, whatever). Sure, for a receipt or random thing I need right away - I'll print it myself.

    I think the concept is solid, but what would set OP apart from existing services? Rapid 3d prototyping? Quality of prints? Reduced cost? Variety of 3d printing materials? Larger than competitor print capability?

    Those are the main things that come to mind when I think about this, not so much that 3d printers will become common place in the household. That said, I'm not really sure whether OP is talking about 3d printing his own products to sell or a print on demand type business.
     
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  16. AnAverageJoe
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    AnAverageJoe Worse than a drunken sloth Read Millionaire Fastlane I've Read UNSCRIPTED FASTLANE INSIDER Speedway Pass

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    Thanks for your feedback. I actually have ideas for both. I have an existing store that I could print 3D products for, and I have an idea for a novelty POD service.

    After reading what @SanMateo said though, I'm thinking I should figure out how to sell the pick axe.
     
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    I think 3D printing as in 3D-printing-as-a-business isn't going to make you a lot of money.

    The entry is VERY low. Businesses that need a printer for prototyping or whatever they just buy the "best" one and move on.

    If you wanted to offer services for them you'd have to update your equipment all the time and unless you have some serious cashflow going you'd not be able to keep up, you'd have to compete with other 3D printing companies and manufacturers.

    The technology is not right there yet for mainstream so those who are interested are tinkerers, hackers, makers and so on. And do you know what's common with these guys? They love to share.

    They share models, designs, products and even there are a couple of open sourced hardware projects so you can build your own 3D printer.

    And the expensive printers are very sophisticated to the point that you can hit print and be almost 100% certain that it's going to work without any problems just like regular printers.

    I agree with @GoGetter24 3D printing as an end is going to be brutal.

    But you could use it as a mean to another end.

    Anyway I recommend you do some research on 3DHubs.com and Shapeways.com.
     
  18. Conrad
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    Hi there!
    I was struggling with this idea too. I worked in a worldclass 3D printer factory (one of the biggest, maybe the biggest 3D printers on planet) and they basically make big and small pieces:
    Big pieces: as rapid prototyping for new car designs/ship parts/MOLD for iron casting(!) and medical components for dentists
    Small pieces: special fashion home decoration

    Big pieces = big money, but also big projects
    Small pieces= not worth in my opinion. Too expensive and time consuming. Chinese shops can do better.

    As they said before, a 3D printer in home is ....it's just a toy.

    I used to sell laser-engraved wood decorations on Etsy, that's maybe another option. The sales can be good, depending on your product and CREATIVITY ;-)
     
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    I have a 3D printer that I fiddle with to make various contraptions. I use Fusion 360 to do the CAD work. I would never start a printing business, it is overcrowded for one, and then it's just extremely difficult to keep your printer in working order. 7 out of 10 prints fail for me and it's a constant struggle to figure out what's wrong. It's a patience building hobby in my opinion. I'd settle on you learning Fusion 360 and selling your designs or doing designs for other users. That'd be a killer upwork skill.

    If you end up going the CAD route, charge for revisions or you'll pull your hair out.
     
  20. timmy
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    Lots of 3d printing forums out there. A British guy has a platform that's open source and you can actually build the printers. Only printed circuit boards need to be purchased. As cheap as chips ( as part of your training that is) Perhaps the online course would follow on from this. Brilliant idea and as stated you are in a tourist region. Pump out that gear cheap & fast. Harley type specialised type gear is also brilliant advice.Go to it and good luck
     
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    @AnAverageJoe

    I hope you don't mind if I hijack your thread. I am looking for answers to a very similar question.

    I've been looking for a way to leverage my engineering skills into a fast lane business. I used to sell 3D printer kits back in 2012-2013, and found that the price you could charge dropped to below my cost to buy the parts, so this was not a viable business.

    I looked at the idea of a 3D printing service as a business, and found that places like Shapeways, ProtoLabs, 3Dhubs, etc. made margins super thin.

    I have the design skills - my day job is to design injection molded parts and tooling (injection molds) and I primarily drive Solidworks (over 8500 hours experience at this time), with several hundred hours on AutoDesk Inventor, a couple thousand on AutoCAD and a few dozen on Pro/E (Creo). I'm also very good at what I do as a design engineer - compared to the engineers at the companies that bring us (my employer) their projects to be molded.

    I've done a few consulting jobs (moonlighting outside of my day job) to inventors local to my area, and in one case, I helped the inventor 3D print the designs I came up with. We used Shapeways for the prints. I did not find consulting very financially rewarding and was a huge time suck, so I stopped. If I were to do it again, I would charge a LOT more, starting at $150 an hour and going up from there. Actually, I would charge a flat fee, after reading the eBook from Freshbooks that someone posted to a thread on TFF.

    If anyone has any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

    The only way I see to scale doing mechanical (CAD) design work into a fastlane business is the same strategy as an inventor - come up with a product or improvement to an existing product and get it manufactured. This would require a large up front investment. At my day job, I've designed molds as cheap as $6500, and as expensive as $92,000, and everywhere in-between. Tooling and production runs are not cheap. I've done around 130-140 projects in the past 3.2 years at my day job. I have to really hustle my ass on getting projects done. My employer's business model stinks - design once, sell once. This is the nature of the tooling business. A better model - design once, sell many copies. We are working on getting out of the tooling business but at the moment, its required to make our primary business model viable - selling molding machines.

    Here's a story:
    I was offered a startup stake once and found they wanted me to do all of the mechanical design (this means physical product design) for only 1-2% stake. Folks, that is a full time job! This project was big enough to easily exceed 1000 hours, and I may be underestimating here as the "founder" had NO manufacturing experience whatsoever. He was a drywall contractor for friggin' sake!. And he wanted to maintain 80% equity ownership. If you want any hope of getting a decent engineer involved in a non-existent startup, you need to make a better offer!

    --Sorry for the rant but most people just don't have any clue. They think the idea is everything and "just any engineer" can execute. Sorry folks, that's not how it works. Most engineers are mediocre and are not up to the task at hand. You need a really good engineer. Its no different than doctors or lawyers or any professional for that matter.

    The device had electronics, so I think there was a EE involved and a audio expert as well. It was a cell phone case with 2 external speakers that slide out. It was also supposed to house a battery to increase battery life of the phone. The battery/speaker part would detach. I passed. Their ridiculous offer made it easy. Later I saw their kickstarter fail. Not sure of the exact reasons, but I suspect the product was not unique enough. I feel bad for the poor sucker they did recruit to do the design work. He was a lot younger than me. I like to think I am wiser.

    Here's a (more) interesting story: One my vendors (an injection molding house/toolmaker) recently showed me a part they mold for another customer of theirs. This company has been molding this same part, on this SAME injection mold for over 20 years! That is an unusual and incredible production run. I'm surprised the Chinese have not copied the product. I think its not huge volume - under 100K units per year, in an very specialized application - probably under the radar of the Chinese. Just a guess. I should investigate this more and try to reverse engineer their business model.
     
    Last edited: Apr 2, 2018
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  22. ExcelGuy
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    My advice would be to buy an inexpensive "toy" printer or at least one of the Makerbot models, and then make a lot of prints and get familiar with the industry. If you have an idea for an item, compare the time and materials it would cost you to make it and ship it to a distant customer and compare it to using Shapeways for the same.
    Design is where you will make most of your money if you can do it. Consulting to start off can get your foot in the door with a lot of places perhaps.

    Suggestion: 3D/chrome plate some biker accessories and actually get some sales and requests before moving on to something else or determining it is worthwhile.
     
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    If I were you, I would start of with a printer that's not yours. Here in the Netherlands we have businesses that rent them out. You can borrow or rent one, this gives you a feeling about what's it all about. I've heard stories about 24 hours of printing for a really small object - which is not what you want offcourse.
    Experimentation with a 3D printer gives you a sense of whats possible and who knows, fresh business ideas.

    A few years ago, we've invested in a 2D laser-cutter that prints stencils for us. Nowadays we sell them worldwide (a niche market). We started out selling stencils, made with the machine from a guy we knew. After using that machine for a while and the sales grew, we knew we were on to a real business and besides that, we knew what kind of specs we needed from the machine we wanted for our business.
     
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    I run a hobby business that sells 3-D printed plastic parts as art and for fix/repair. I don't make much profit and the time investment can be considerable, I do it because it's a learning experience and is part of the process of something bigger that I am going for down the road. Scalability is tough because the printers are slow. It can't compete with injection molding. To sell something that is 3-D printed is usually a one-off novelty. I calculated I needed about 20 printers running full time (and of course the demand from the customers) to profit about $100k. That many printers you need staff for (or at least a couple of cheaply paid interns who will probably ruin your equipment until they get trained up). It takes a long time to find enough variety of products to keep 20 printers going full time. I am not saying it isn't worth it. I think there is potential there. Figuring out the business model and scalability is one of the hard problems, as well as finding out what folks want to purchase - my biggest selling items were NOT anything I would have thought of. People came to me and asked for stuff, and I was like sure, I'll make that....but volume is low, otherwise they would have gone to injection molding. But I'm not a sales/marketing guy. Have a lot to learn there.

    And that's just plastic. There are businesses out there doing both plastic and metal 3-D printing successfully. They are typically the one's building the machines, selling them, and offering "high-volume" 3D-parts. They charge a lot for simple parts. Or if metal only, they are working with the Prime aerospace companies and a $5M DMG MORI investment pays off in a couple of years if you can print off one valve housing 12x per year. And if you have to apply the NASA standards, might as well kiss your ass goodbye. It takes a year at least to qualify a machine to meet their standards. And then if you are a Prime, you are just going to do it in house eventually.

    Nothing worthwhile is going to be easy. I think there is a business model out there....maybe....keep working at it. Just beware of the time trap.
     
  25. Raitis
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    Raitis New Contributor

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    Late to the party, but might still be useful.

    I have a printer at home, have previously worked in a makerspace as an employee and then used several others in various places. The consumer grade machines are exactly that - consumer grade. Quality wise - there isn't a big difference (if any) between a tuned in $300 Chinese kit printer and a $6000 Makerbot. There will be a difference frustration wise if you're new to this.

    The key difference between industrial and consumer grade machines is repeatability. The industrial machines (which can easily cost as much as a house) will produce the same part over and over again with consistent accuracy.

    Consumer grade - not so much as there are many variables. The material can have varying properties. The environment the printer is in is a variable (opened door and a draft can cause a part to warp and unstick from the print bed). Belt tension, motors skipping steps, excessive dust and a shitload of other things will make your results vary.

    The current landscape is such that even if it still isn't, the printing services will end up in a run to the bottom on prices since more people have printers and can offer the services on such places as 3DHubs.

    This means that printing as a service likely isn't the best way to go.

    This doesn't invalidate other uses though. Offer a useful service on top of printing and you're good to go. The technology is becoming commonplace, yet there still are many industries that haven't fully grasped that it can help them do better and save money. You can be the person to show them how to use printing to profit more and in turn profit yourself.

    One thing that I still sometimes consider doing, but abstain to focus on what matters most is printing manufacturing/assembly jigs.

    There's a clear value in them as a tool to make production process faster. 3D printing lowers the price to make them and in turn opens the possibility for more businesses. Especially useful for those with gentle assembly needs and such.

    I initially got the idea by watching Volkswagen use 3D printing in their process. I'm new here and not sure about posting links so google for Volkswagen Ultimaker and check out the article and videos by Ultimaker (which is a somewhat expensive, but a decent consumer grade printer).