3D Print For Business? Create a Brand Not a Commodity

Not long after I wrote the article “23 3D Printing Business Ideas you can use today” I received emails from some of our customers, which I always love reading. They explained that they were having difficulty starting and growing their 3D printing businesses, it was challenging and that they hadn’t had much success. Well, they were right – it is.

Starting, and perhaps more importantly growing a business in any niche is challenging. I think with 3D printing though, there are too many of us that didn’t identify a need, a place for the business and simply got into their 3D business simply because they liked to 3D print stuff.

Don’t get me wrong, the No.1 concern when choosing your business idea should be that it’s in line with what you enjoy doing. I back this 100% - if you’re in a business you don’t enjoy, it will slowly eat away at you and eventually destroy you.

What I do see, is so many ‘me too’ businesses. Before I continue and before anyone accuses me of being a hypocrite, let’s address the elephant in the room – yes I’m the founder of a filament company. There are A LOT of them around, and they all say “we do mediocre filament too! Buy ours!”. Now you know us; we’re not like the other filament companies, we care – we make the best of the best and we don’t rip you off for it. But there’s a ton of noise in the market, and we needed to break through that.  

3DHubs London

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Be a different 3D Printing business:


But just what exactly what is a 3D printing ‘me too’ business, and why are they so hard to grow? 3D Hubs is a perfect example. Imagine you’ve got a 3D printer, you love it and you love printing stuff. One day, you learn you can market your printing services on a site like 3D Hubs, and print stuff for people and businesses. This is great, it means that the printer that cost you a packet, can now make some money. But is it really a business?

The problem is, that a lot of other people do this – so it’s really hard to build and scale this type of business. You are essentially providing a commodity. A customer can get a prototype computer mouse design mocked up by any one of 20-30 hubs in their local area, all for pretty similar price. With printer qualities now getting very similar between models, practically the only differentiator you offer could be the quality of filament you use (meaning finished part strength and usability) and turnaround time.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to discrediting your business if you operate on 3D Hubs or similar – it is a business and you do provide a much needed service. What I am saying, is that you will find it hard to grow and scale. If you want to run a 3D printing business that you can really grow, you need to look at things a little differently.

If we take the printing side out of the equation and just look at a regular commerce business for a moment; which has more potential. A) setting up a business selling other people’s brands, or B) setting up your own business selling your own brand? Sure the second one is harder, but you’ll have a lot less direct competition because you can differentiate yourself. Buy a specific TV from Amazon and you might see 15 different sellers for that product, offering it all at pretty much the same price. You know the service will be good from their ratings, so you may as well just pick the cheapest seller for that specific model of TV.


Amazon Sellers

These sellers are offering a branded product, with a commodity service. And this is a very hard market to compete in. None of the sellers are really doing anything different.

In addition, when you want to go back and buy a second TV, or a sound system – you might look for the same brand of tech, because you were impressed with the quality of the TV, but will you remember the seller? Will you actually care who ships it to you, just as long as the price is great and you’re not left waiting, and returns are easy enough if things go wrong? I know I don’t. The seller doesn’t even benefit from the economies of scale of repeat business, all their work was for nothing if the customer they worked hard to earn just opts for another seller on their other purchases.

This is all great for the customer, it enables them to get a great product at the lowest price. But it doesn’t work so well for the sellers, they’re all competing shouting ‘me too!’ in a sea of marketing noise. And that is what trying to grow a 3d printing related business is like on a service site like hubs. A lot of peddling upstream, and your hard work is unlikely to lead to scalability in the long run. You’re not building a go-to or recognised brand.

So what should you do?


Let’s get back to basics. What are 3d printers best at? What advantages do 3d printers have that make them so ground breaking? The great thing with these machines is that you can create almost anything, in a relatively short space of time (I’m talking a day to print as opposed to months and investing thousands sculpting an injection moulding a prototype).

It sounds cheesy, but the possibilities are quite literally endless. I’ll let that sink in.  You have a factory sat on your desk that can create your own product, while you sleep and then you can sell them to people all over the world (also, while you sleep).

The advantage here is that you can create something that is your design. Something that’s exclusive to you. And if you’re not a dab hand at 3D design for the digital model, you can always hire a designer by the hour to whip up your napkin sketches into water-tight, print-ready STL files for you. You can create an entire range of products that are exclusive to you. You can create your own brand. 

To shed more light on this, we’ll take a look a little more closely at two avenues you can take to start your own, essentially customized ecommerce business. Something that’s scalable, where you can really ad value.

The first is to retail your own ‘designer’ range of objects. This could be some unique lampshades, innovative items that serve a niche or plant pots for example. The key is to make a range of items that are excellent, regardless of whether or not they’re 3D printed. The “oooh, it’s 3d printed” isn’t a novelty that’s going to last that long. So it’s important the stuff is made and looks nice, and if it’s unique enough you can charge a premium for it.

Examples of successful 3D Printing Ecommerce businesses:




A brilliant example is a company on Etsy, called MeshCloud. Look how their shop is represented, it looks very professional. They 3d print premium, unique planters that really catch your eye. You can see from the prices that due to their unique product line, they’re able to charge a premium. And because of their individual styling, people buy from them repeatedly once they see the quality and how the planters bring a different sense of style to their home.

They only appear to be on esty though, so their reach is limited. You could really scale this up by expanding sideways and listing them on NotOnTheHighStreet.com, Amazon Handmade (even Amazon’s main marketplace) and other niche marketplaces. Eventually once you’ve proved you have sufficient demand for the plant pots, you could invest just $100 and open up your own Shopify store with your own domain name.

It’s a great idea, but hugely underutilised. It’s frustrating because it looks like they’ve done all the hard work, but aren’t looking to expand. Or I could be wrong; they could just get all the business they need from Etsy alone.

Rule No.1: create something people want. Rule No.2: sell it where your customers are actually looking to buy it.


Niche 3D Printing Business


A fantastic benefit to a 3D printing ecommerce business is that you can start small, and work your way up. Don’t have thousands to invest in inventory? Just make one item first to photograph, and then just print more as you sell them. “Just-in-time manufacturing” is now commonplace in big manufacturing plants – so it’s definitely a winning plan.

Another shop I love on Etsy is Fynsya, they make retro styled cases for the open-source micro-computer Raspberry PI. This ‘hackers dream toy’ has a huge following, and Pierluigi Cerutti has created a range of nostalgic cases loosely based on the first generation Atari, NES, Commodore and PS1 games consoles.  Don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia; people grew up skipping schoolwork playing these machines. They retail for £13-£15 each (about $20 US) and only use a small amount of filament to make.

Again Pierluigi could expand this business on other marketplaces, including his own site. Furthermore though, he’d benefit from making it look a little bit more professional. A better looking store front, with high-res professional images would do wonders. He could also expand the range to cater for other micro-computers, such as the Arduino and the new Microbit. I’m sure there’s a ton of bloggers and YouTube stars out there that would love to review these innovative cases and bring more attention to his business.

It’s important to remember when setting up your own business, that thanks to the internet you almost cannot go too niche. Sometimes, the more specific and specialised, the better. Also, with your 3D printer and a little time – there are almost no setup costs. The sales will pay for the materials (and hopefully eventually additional 3d printers!) to expand as you grow.

The $12,000 door stop:

The second kind of ecommerce business is quite exciting, and great for fast thinkers and creatives. Before 3D printers, this type of business would be very hard to do – but now you can go from no idea, to product often within 24 hours, speed really is your super power.

I’m talking about reacting to latest news, events or trends happening in the world as they happen. This is potentially a very explosive combination. If something’s trending and you have an idea to bring it to market in a very short space of time, you can ride that wave and it can be carried on social media. Emotion + timing + social media = powerful business.

 3D Printed Door Stop

A perfectly executed example was spawned from a recent Game of Thrones episode *Spoiler alert* where a character called Hodor died holding a door closed protecting his friends from a torrent of Whitewalkers (zombies). It was a pretty dramatic and emotional scene. But an enterprising man called Todd Blatt immediately created a very simple door stop with ‘Hodor’ written on it. Within a day of the episode going live, he’d thrown together a ‘how it’s made’ video and posted the project on Kickstarter.

The Kickstarter was clearly done in a hurry, the video was quickly filmed and pictures were taken – and it went live. It’s not the most polished Kickstarter, but that’s not the point – he got it done quickly. While talk of the recent episode tore through social media, Todd’s innovation rode the wave and exploded over social media as people shared it in their thousands and news sites covered the innovative design.

Now for those of you with a keen eye, you’ll notice the door stop is actually made from wood – but if it had been 3d printed I expect it would have had an equally good reaction. This design on Thingiverse appeared shortly after. It looks as though the campaign surpassed Todd’s expectations as he’s had to list more rewards as each batch sold out within days. Selling them for $19 apiece, he’s managed to raise $12,000 over the course of just 7 days. Potentially this could have raised even more had it been subject to an aggressive media launch plan.

This is a perfect example of the sort of business that can be built with a 3D printer and some creativity. For those of you thinking this wouldn’t be a long lasting enterprise – that’s right, it may not be on its own. But once you’d trained yourself to look out for opportunities like this, you could react to other events quickly too, creating other rapid-growth businesses. Alternatively Todd now has a customer base of GoT fans he can create more clever gadgets for, opening the window for repeat business.  

Admittedly this second approach would be harder to get right in a short time frame, let alone do it repeatedly, but if you’re tuned in to the potential you could be more likely to pounce on an opportunity that arises.

The first approach; creating a scalable niche ecommerce business and launching on various marketplaces is going to be your easiest to start, and have the most potential. So stop doing what you’ve known about already, and put yourself out there. Look for an idea, ideally something you’re interested in, and market it well. It won’t cost you much, as the barriers to entry are so low – and within a few months you could have a very scalable ecommerce business that not only sounds intriguing at cocktail parties, but could well replace your day job.

I’ll be following up this article with more guides to starting and growing 3D printing businesses over the coming weeks and months, so subscribe to our newsletter to get more great tips to build your business. Next time we’ll cover how to launch and the strategies to grow on the various marketplaces like Etsy, NOTHS.com, Amazon and others. If you 3D print for business, or plan to, this advice will make you money. Please comment below, I read all comments – and who knows, your question could inspire the next blog post.

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