We’ve covered a few methods to build different businesses around 3D printing in this article. In today’s article we’re drilling down on the business model of creating your own custom prints on your existing 3D printer and creating your own scalable brand to sell these prints online.
Note: Please don’t get this article confused with ‘theory ideas’ thought up by a generic blog writer trying to piggy-back on the ‘3d printing boom’ and people’s desire to build extra income ‘the easy way’. I’m a businessperson first, a 3D printer second and a writer, third. This article and others I’ve written are only ever based on experience, facts and real life case studies.
What we’re talking about here is in effect creating your own ecommerce business. Not a consultancy or a service based business (as these are fast being commoditised).
What we’re talking about here is you finding a product niche that ideally you’re enthusiastic about that you can provide products for sale that a specific group of customers want.
There are many benefits, and little downsides to starting a business this way. If you already have a 3D printer – you’re already half way there.
This article is going to cover 13 ways you can set up your own business selling 3d prints, with different product ideas in different niches. Any one of these products can be used right now to create a profitable 3d printing based business, and hopefully they’ll spark your imagination for thinking of other product ideas and niches.
It’s never been easier to start an ecommerce business:
With a plethora of Marketplace channels to sell your 3d prints on and low cost ways to create your own ecommerce website. What’s more, often the most problematic issue in ecommerce is product sourcing – but you already have that sorted, sitting on your work bench.
A 3D printer is the perfect micro-factory for many reasons. You can update your designs and print new revisions of your product near-instantly, keeping your inventory up to date in real time. In fact, you don’t even need to hold a physical inventory.
Let’s say you get your first order at 5:30pm on a Weds night? Set the printer on an overnight batch, pick, prepare and ship by Thursday morning. The customer get’s their order (hopefully) on Friday, and you’ll be getting great feedback by the weekend.
OK, so that’s a little over simplified. Business is never that simple, and let’s face it – 3D printing isn’t always either. But this does illustrate the potential once you’ve smoothed out your processes.
What we’re not talking about here though is printing custom items for people, like you may with sites such as 3D Hubs. The margins are two low, because so many people do it. You can’t really brand a commodity like that. We’re also not going to choose items that sell simply because of the novelty that they’re 3D printed – like useless cheap trinkets.
The “Ohh wow, that’s 3D printed?!” reaction at your friend’s dinner parties wears thin pretty quickly...
No, we’re talking about creating quality products, that frankly the customer couldn’t care if they were 3D printed or not. They just care that they fill a need, or want that they have and the quality of the product and your service is something they can rave about. See the difference?
All the examples I’m going to list through below are taken from existing businesses that are actually doing this, right now. Many of them are currently our customers. People are doing this stuff right now, on standard £500-£4000 FDM printers.
There are many varieties of complexity, from simply ‘print & send’ easy to make prints to high-end prints that need a bit of finishing. It might help to choose something in your range of complexity. Let’s dive in to what could potentially be your next ecommerce business!
Nerf Gun Accessories
This looks a bit obvious (and yes, I briefly covered Nerf mods in another article) but I wanted to kick things off with something that perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to get across here. There’s a growing following around Nerf guns, they’ve grown from a childs toy in just a few years to a necessary component of office warfare (here at rigid.ink you’ll be lucky if you go a few hours without being hit firmly between the eyes by a stray foam dart).
Just doing a quick search on eBay for “3d printed nerf” lists a host of cool aftermarket mods. From the picture above, you can see that most of them are really very simple prints. That silencer that sells for $34 US? It likely only uses about 50g of filament (at most). That means you could print 20 from a 1KG spool costing around £30. That means those silencers would cost you about £1.50-£2.00 to print each one.
That’s a pretty incredible profit margin! http://3dprintedsolid.com/ have even gone as far to release their own custom fully modded Nerf guns costing up to $300!
Pros: This business would be very easy to set up. I imagine a lot of the designs for mods are already available free on Thingiverse and the prints are very simple. Prints are fast with no to little post print processing.
Cons: Easy to replicate and potentially lots of competitors could set up quickly (but then again, which business doesn’t?). But you could stay ahead by creating your own unique designs as the demand grew.
Customized Shoes (Flip Flops)
This sounds a lot more high-tech than it needs to be. This is one of the better ideas here, that hasn’t actually been done yet – but I think it would have fantastic potential. I don’t like sharing my best ideas normally, but I’ve got my hands full at the moment. Besides, execution is everything, anyway (meaning ideas on their own, are worth zilch).
But we’re not talking complex multiple-material shoes like the big companies are working on. But yes, this is part of the mass-customization revolution. The problem I personally find with flip flops is that they’re most comfortable when they’re fully worn in. But flip flops typically aren’t made all that well, certainly not to last (even the more expensive ones).
The paradox is that if you made them out of a material hard wearing enough to last a long time, they’d never wear in properly. Thus never being optimally comfortable.
So why not create 3d printed flip flops, designed to the exact contours of the wearer’s feet? The high grade of flexible materials to print them (such as our new TPU filament) with would ensure they last a long time and as they were perfectly created for the wearer, they’d feel like they were worn-in from day one.
You might be thinking “I don’t wear flip flops, so who cares?” – well, a lot of people do wear them. And you might be surprised how much people will pay for them. Remember the Crocs fad? They were hideous, and cheaply made, and they sold for a lot of money.
You can also get apps for mobiles now that can accurately scan simple objects – yes, like the bottoms of your feet. You could sell the flip flops for £50-£100 a pair (and yes, people would pay that for the most comfortable shoes they’ve ever owned, and that are stylish and that could last them 10 years+).
Pros: New idea, could easily get PR from uniqueness. Simple to print, wouldn’t take too long to print each one if using a larger nozzle size. High margin
Cons: Need a reliable way of scanning feet (existing apps around?) and need larger print bed to cover all sizes.
Now this could be set up as a service business, or an ecommerce business depending on which way you look at it. As a service business, you could offer bespoke quotes for architects to show projects in a physical 3D form and print out all the props custom.
As an ecommerce business, you could offer a huge range of buildings of various sizes and props for Architects wanting to show a project as custom, but on a much tighter budget. Naturally the building in question would need to be custom printed (perfect up-sell opportunity here) but the surrounding buildings and ‘setting’ can be from more generic stock buildings. The most profitable way here might be to run the ecommerce side and service sides of the business in parallel.
There are many off-shoots you could cover here, like dioramas for model railways, Warhammers etc.
Here’s a picture of one of our customers on Twitter, showing off some work they’ve done. It should give you a better idea of the things that are possible.
Pros: Rapidly expanding area, with high levels of repeat trade from business customers.
Cons: Some level of design skill required, or to know someone who can do it cheaply to make it more viable.
This could be really high-ticket. Extremely realistic props are very sought after by hard-core fans. You’d have to check the legalities of selling items like these though depending on what Game or Film you were basing them on. But private collectors would pay good money for their own Iron Man suit, or a massive gun from a famous game for example.
Pros: High ticket, big sale price items – high virality aspect on social media. People who have their own iron man suit, complete with lights etc. tend to get a bit of attention.
Cons: Large amount of work, but you could make systems to speed up repeat orders (i.e printing small batches of same components, painting them all at once etc.). Potential issues with copyrights.
Jewellery & Ornaments
High precision print using a our clear PLA with a 0.1mm Nozzle size on a Mass Portal 3D Printer
With the extreme high resolution, and the increasing affordability of photopolymer based resin 3d printers, bespoke “one off” jewellery can be crafter from lost wax casting.
Essentially this is where you design a ring, for example, and print it with a UV light curing photopolymer wax. The wax can then be used to create a cast mold, and will burn away when filling with molten metal.
Naturally this takes a little bit of skill to learn the craft properly, but if you’re extremely creative – retailing your own line of exclusive, high end jewelry could be a popular business, especially if you make a name for yourself.
The key to this type of business is finding a nice targeted niche, and then specialize in materials and designs that lend themselves to that target audience.
It’s also possible to get extremely accurate FDM printers now, printing with just 0.1mm nozzle diameters. You could get wax filament to print lost wax designs for the casts.
Pros: Again, potentially high ticket and unusual. Lot of potential to be featured by niche publications and blogs. Very big influencers could be persuaded to promote your designs if they get behind them.
Cons: An element of skill and creativity required. Also potentially higher setup costs due to rare metals, and using a resin printer.
One of our customers, JJ Robots create fantastically innovative Robotic Kits from repurposed 3D printer parts. The Robots range from self balancing RC style, to internet controlled Whiteboards and Airhockey bots.
These are a fantastic educational guide for children to learn from, and there are many sub niches you could target for ‘robots’., but does require skill and creativity to set up.
Pros: This is a high ticket product, and huge potential for innovation on a range of areas. Especially as InternetOfThings gains in adoption – Wifi Controlled Kettle anyone? Set up costs should also be fairly low.
Cons: Of course this does require some technical skill to design, and implement.
Your Own Designer Range of Vases
I said vases, but this could be with any high-end designer in-the-home product. Like coasters, clocks, toothbrush holders. You get the idea.
The key here is that you don’t rely on the fact these items are 3D printed to be the reason people love them. Think high end, luxury, beautiful looking items. Are you starting to see a trend here?
I’ve mentioned ‘MeshCloud’ before, but they do this high-end luxury homeware business to a T – they’re a perfect example of how to do this business model right. They have a large range with a variety of prices for unique designs. Etsy, Amazon and NotOnTheHighStreet.com make perfect platforms to retail these kinds of items.
Pros: Very easy to setup and build a range. Low skill required to produce, although you’ll need some creativity for the designs. Would be a great business to build further product lines onto (like those mentioned above).
Cons: Competitors could easily copy your designs, so it would be important to build close brand loyalty with customers and innovate new designs or ranges often.
Bespoke PC Cases
The ‘Vesper’ by Makirole (Left) and the Star Wars Destroyer by Sander van der Velden (Right)
OK, so this is very high end stuff. But some people will pay serious money for one-off (or very limited run) custom cases. These examples are at the extreme end of quality, but you could easily make more repeatable designs that look almost as good, but a lot easier to create and design.
Pros: They’d get a lot of attention on social media. People love geeking out over insane gaming rigs, and these case designs are the cherry on top.
Cons: Can be very time consuming to make, so ensure you charge accordingly. Choose between more mass appeal, more reasonable cases that you can make faster and more easily, or one-off cases that are truly exceptional.
A company “3D Babies” tried these a few years ago, and they were an epic fail. The Indiegogo campaign didn’t do very well (I’m not selling this much, am I?).
However, there’s a reason for this – they were trying to charge up to $450 for 1 x 3D print of your unborn fetus. As 3D printers have come on leaps and bounds since then though, you could now print better quality baby figurines on a more affordable printer and therefore offer them at a more competitive price point.
Regardless of the controversial or ethical view points, I would be confident that there would be a percentage of expectant parents that would go for this product, at the right price.
And if you’re wondering how you get the 3D file data, you can actually pull the model from a 3D baby scans that are becoming more commonplace. It’s interesting the amount of people who will pay £70+ to see their baby in 3D on screen. Would they think much more about paying an additional £100 or so to have their baby 3D printed in physical form? For many, maybe not.
The way this could be handled like and ecommerce business is to offer the various sized figurines available online, and the customer places the order.
Pros: Easy to access, mostly complete 3D files. Unique product, and service.
Cons: Seen as strange concept, but this could work to your advantage with publicity.
Customized Ear Buds
OwnPhones have created a really slick product here - but it's pricey
Everyone’s ear is different. If you wear stock earphones, it’s likely they’re not as comfortable or sound insulated as they could be.
There are a small handful of companies offering this service already – which proves there’s a market for it. Using a phone 3D scan app, the customer ‘scans’ the inside of their ear, for the app to create a 3D file. You can then custom print the earbuds which fit inside the customer’s’ ear to the perfect size.
The actual earphone part of the product could be bought off-the-shelf, and you package the custom bud as part of the product. This would allow you to retail a high-end sound quality item, with the custom size benefit.
The unit costs would be extremely small as the material used would be next to nothing. So once you’ve paid setup expenses for a high resolution printer, your margins would be good.
You could later build out the range with different colours and styles. As far as print-on-demand ecommerce businesses go, this has a lot going for it.
With the small size of each earphone, it may even be worth getting these outsourced to a 3DHubs or similar for each order. This would keep fixed setup costs to an absolute minimum in the early days. An SLA printer might only charge £20-£30 for something that you could sell for £100 or more.
As a way to get started, here's a fantastic guide to printing your first set of custom earphones.
Pros: High margin and it’s a big niche – so plenty of potential customers, especially if you can create an efficient system to keep price sensible.
Cons: Precision printing and sizing is a must, so make sure you get the correct equipment. Don’t skim on the audio quality of the earphones – or it’ll cheapen your whole product offering.
Retro Raspberry PI Cases
This is a Gameboy styled case by ACMEglow on eBay.com
This is a favourite of mine, because it appeals to a specific group of people that love electronics and programming, and therefore are probably pretty nostalgic about the now retro games consoles they used as kids.
This way of tapping into people’s nostalgia speaks volumes and is a powerful combination. You don’t need to stop at retro themed cases either, you could launch into a realm of new designs. And remember, you only need to print one of each out for photographs – you don’t need to hold inventory of all of these. So why not build the range out?
Pros: Fun to do, range of ideas already available. Most competitors aren’t currently marketing their businesses very well, so you’ve got potential to grow easily. Low setup costs.
Cons: Potentially low sale price compared with other 3d printing business ideas here, but plenty of opportunity to scale relatively easily.
Every now and then, a craze sweeps the world and everyone gets excited about something. Sure these are often a flash in the pan, relatively speaking – and nearly everyone is too slow to react to make a business from them. But things are changing…
With 3D printing, if you have an idea, you can create it something overnight. It allows you the luxury of speed. This is great, because with a good idea and the speed to do it with, you can launch new exciting products and gain fast press publicity off of the back of the trend.
In the past I explained the HODOR door-stop reference (only really makes sense if you’re a Game Of Thrones fan I’m afraid) – and since then we’ve had the Pokémon Go craze. You may or may not be aware of the ins and outs, but essentially it involved everyone in the world, mindlessly chasing invisible Pokémon everywhere.
And to catch them, you needed to have a steady finger. Except a of people don’t seem to have one of those, so Pokémon ‘aimers’ were devised. There were different designs for different phones.
This sort of thing works fantastically well on crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter – you can then list for sale on Marketplace websites during and after the main Kickstarter campaign to mop up excess sales and squeeze the craze for each last drop.
Pros: If you can be first, the potential is huge. The HODOR door stop raised over $12,000 US on Kickstarter in about a week.
Cons: Short lived, so you have to be fasts and able to jump on what’s trending. Twitter Trends might be a great thing to keep an eye on.
Own Range of Drones, RC Planes & Accessories
This is really exciting. Why? For two reasons; a) drones are becoming really popular, because they’re getting faster, more powerful and can fly for increasingly longer (and of course, they’re really fun). b) the materials available to those who 3d print are becoming more impressive, so you can now print stronger, lighter and more durable stuff.
For example, we’re soon to launch a hybrid of Carbonfiber and Nylon – making a low density, hard and durable material, ideal for small aircraft that undergo significant stresses and high impact crashes. Sure you can use regular PLA, but it’s very dense, and not as hard. With new materials like this, you can create ever higher performing machines.
Another bonus is that when you're flying a drone or 3d printed RC plane at 70pmh+ into a tree, no matter how strong the parts are, you'll get some breakages. Leading to repeat business.
This is a Spitfire printed by our customer Laurent Muchacho in our PLA - Weighs about 500g
Pros: Rapidly expanding niche, open source designs - low tech 3D printer required. Good margins.
Cons: Some knowledge required to really gain the best understanding of drones and how to improve them.
Hopefully all those product suggestions have given you an idea to start your own product based 3d printing ecommerce business. The barriers to entry are so low, if you have a 3D printer and wanted to start your own business – can you think of a good enough reason not to? Stay tuned as we’ll update this blog regularly with further tips to sell your prints, and build your new business venture.
A word of caution though, think about your idea carefully and research the market to make sure there’s a demand for your product (but then again, if there isn’t – just don’t print it and start with the next idea?) – and it’s wise to stay away from a few key niches.
Personally I would feel it too risky to go into niches related to very young Kids toys (in case your designs have a weak point and the kid chokes!) or food prep gadgets. And just because the filament you use could be FDA approved, doesn’t mean your actual manufacturing process is, so you could be liable.
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