If you own or a thinking about buying a 3D printer, at some point you may have thought about how you can make some money out of this.
In this article, I’m going to show you how to make money 3D printing and hopefully give you some ideas as to the different ways you can do this. Let’s be clear though from the start that this isn’t a “get rich quick” guide that’s going to net you millions. However, there are plenty of people that started small and made it big so who knows, you may be one of those people.
Unless you already have a business plan and the resources to do so, it’s unlikely that you’ll go out and buy a hundred printers and set up a factory. Granted that has probably been done or at least tried but for now let’s focus on starting small with owning one 3D printer.
Over recent years, owning a 3D printer has become much more affordable with a lot of entry level FDM printers costing less than $250. This has meant that the decision to buy your first 3D printer is easier if of course you have $250 to spare. But buying the printer isn’t the end of the costs as you’ll have ongoing outlay with materials, peripherals and replacement parts. Have a look at my articles “Budgeting for Success: Understanding 3D Printing Material Costs” and “Decoding the Mystery: How Much Filament Does a 3D Print Really Use?” to get an idea of what I mean.
Jump forward then and you’re now the owner of a shiny new 3D printer and you can’t wait to get started. At first you may have just bought the printer as a hobby but as you start making your first successful prints, you’re pretty pleased with what you’ve done and start to think about whether anyone will buy your models. And there you have it, the first seeds of thought on the subject of how to make money 3D printing. You could sell what you’ve printed and make a few dollars here and there but there are other ways to make money from 3D printing that you may not have considered.
Let’s now take another jump forward and look at the various ways you can make money 3D printing, some of which might not actually involve 3D printing at all.
Counting the Ways
All the pieces are in place and you now need to think about the best way forward. As I mentioned, you can make money from 3D printing in more ways than just actually printing models. So let’s take a look at these different money making routes but it only seems right to start off with 3D printing itself.
1. Selling 3D Prints
This is undoubtedly the obvious first choice for anyone who has thought about monetising their hobby. There are several ways you can do this but there are things you need to bear in mind, particularly if you’re selling models of characters from popular culture or designs you haven’t created yourself. I’ll look at that a bit later but for now, let’s look at the best routes to selling your 3D printed items.
· General online sale sites: By this I mean sites like eBay or Etsy which aren’t specifically aimed at 3D printed models but have a massive customer base. This can be to your advantage if you have an original model to sell but your item may also be lost among the millions of other items for sale. You also have to consider the “hidden” costs such as postage and packaging and listing/selling fees.
· Social Media: Facebook Marketplace is a great place to sell things locally at no extra cost to you. This will though limit your customer base unless you offer shipping to buyers from further afield.
· Craft Markets: Another good way to sell your prints locally but you will need to have “stock” produced and ready to go. This will either mean having several copies of the same model available to sell on the day or you could take orders from customers that you can fulfil and deliver after the event. The other thing you need to consider is that craft markets don’t happen every day so your income may not necessarily be regular.
· Your own store: A big leap here as I actually don’t know of any physical stores specifically selling 3D printed models but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be the first. However, the thing to remember her is that there’s probably a reason why there aren’t any stores and that’s because of the day to day costs and overheads of either owning or renting a premises.
2. Selling the Design
If you’ve created a design yourself and think that others might enjoy printing it themselves then you could try selling the STL file. This will cut costs for you in terms of not having to physically print and send the model and you can provide instant delivery of the file to your customers.
We now though get onto the subject of copyright and ownership of the design and the STL. This also relates to the sale of models that you’ve printed and means that you are only legally allowed to sell designs and files that are an original creation that you’ve designed. You also need to be careful if you’re selling designs of well known characters from film and TV as they will undoubtedly be under copyright. However, the way to avoid the wrath of the big corporations is to label your work as “fanart” and that way its considered an homage to the character rather than a copy of intellectual property.
You can also protect your own designs by adding copyright licenses to them on the sites you post them for sale. There are a few different versions of license you can add so have a good check on the particular site as to what other sellers are using for their licenses. This will give you a good idea of what’s appropriate.
So, how do you sell STL files online?
· General online sale sites: Again, eBay and Etsy are good places to sell your files and you can offer instant downloads so your customer will get their file straight away. You will still have to pay seller’s fees though so keep that in mind. You’ve also got to consider that the cost of the file won’t be anywhere close to that of a printed model but your overheads also won’t be as much either
· Specific 3D file sites: You may already be aware of these if you’ve downloaded any files yourself or have read any of my other articles that suggest printable files. The most popular of these sites would include Cults 3D, CG Trader and My Mini Factory. All of these give the option to either sell your files or offer them for free. Obviously the latter won’t make you any money but it may be worth considering offering a few free files to get people interested in your designs. They may then decide that its worth paying for some of the other designs. There are other 3D file sites such as Tinkercad and Printables but all of these are free to download. Tinkercad does allow the user the option to give you a tip but this is optional so don’t expect to make any money from it.
· Other sales routes: If you’re a Creality customer or user then you may be aware of Creality Cloud which is their app and desktop site for all things 3D printed. Via the app you can upload your original design files and offer them for sale to other users. The difference here though is that transactions are done using “credits” which users can buy through the app. 100 credits is equal to about $1 so if you sell something for 500 credits your customer pays $5. You don’t get the full $5 though as there are fees and there’s a minimum withdrawal amount.
3. Printing and Design Services
If you look online you’ll find many companies offering 3D printing services. This means that they will either print a design file that you send to them or may even design and print something based on your specifications. This is particularly prevalent in the world of 3D printed prototypes with many companies offering this service and making a good business from it.
In order for you to turn this kind of service into a business its back to the same thing of starting small. Maybe try it locally by offering the service on Facebook Marketplace or similar and then you could spread your scope further by using Etsy and eBay. At this stage you may be better to just offer one service. So, just offer to print files that customers send to you but make sure you have the printing capability to deliver on the order.
You could of course offer design service only if you have gained good experience using CAD software. Offer to design an item for someone that you can then convert to an STL file and they can then print it themselves. This would be similar to selling the STL file but you would also be able to change for your design and the time its taken to create it.
Lastly, you could offer both services and design and print objects based on parameters provided by the customer. Be careful here though to make sure that you have specific instructions, measurements etc. as mistakes in communication can be expensive. Vague description like “ a box” or “an Anime character” aren’t specific enough for obvious reasons so really drill down on the detail before committing to the commission and deciding a price.
4. 3D Printing Careers
You don’t have to limit your scope on how to make money 3D printing to the actual act of printing and selling items yourself. There are a few career paths that you could take which will involve the use of 3D printers or the design of files for 3D printing. Have a read of my article “Printing Careers in the Anime and Gaming Industry” which will give you an idea of some routes into those worlds but in addition to that, you may be interested in careers in other fields. Let’s briefly look back at that and then at some other career options involving 3D printing.
· Working with Anime studios: Look for roles which require a knowledge or skill in 3D printing and design
· Create your own Anime production: A financially risky option but find the right backer on you could succeed
· Look for careers with merch makers: This could be as a branch from the studio or a specific, licensed manufacturer
· Game development: 3D printing and computer design can be used to develop games and characters. This is more centred on the 3D design aspect but the scope for careers in this field is good given the number of new games being developed
· Game prototyping: Careers can be found in the field of 3D prototyping of games content which gives the development team something physical to work with and further develop their ideas
· Games merchandise development: Again, prototyping plays a large part in this career choice with the use of design and 3D printing to give the manufacturer something to work with before it hits the production line
3D Printing Journalism
· Write about what you know: Make sure you have a good knowledge of the subject matter you’re writing about and fill any gaps with proper research
· Look online for content writing jobs: Sites such as Upwork and Fiverr could be a good starting point
Other careers which involve 3D printing and/or design could be actually working for one of the companies I mentioned earlier that provides printing services. A lot of people start working for a big company and then branch out on their own when they realise they can make their own money.
3D printers and 3D design is also increasingly being used in the medical profession for things such as prosthetics limbs and organs as well as in dentistry. There’s also an obvious need for 3D printing in the aeronautic, aerospace and military environments. There’s a famous picture that used to do the rounds on social media of an Ender 3 printer on a desk in a hangar at NASA.
(Image: Reddit user)
There’s a saying that goes, “if you can’t do, teach” but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re inept at 3D printing if you decide to pass on your knowledge to others. There is a lot to learn about 3D printing that you may never actually get to if you go it alone and sometimes it might be good to enrol in a class or take an online tutorial or two to hone and improve your skills.
If you’re confident enough in your knowledge of 3D printing and think you’d be able to pass that on, then you could consider teaching or at least demonstrating techniques and basic printing skills. This could be through a YouTube channel where, if your following becomes large enough, you could make some revenue. Alternatively, you could even see if there’s an interest for 3D printing in your local area and maybe set up a class or offer one to one tutorials if appropriate.
You probably won’t make a fortune, as most teachers will attest, but you might enjoy it and make a bit of money in the process.
6. 3D Printer Repairs
Most FDM 3D printers are what is known as “open source” which means they can be freely adapted, upgraded and maintained by the user. If you have an aptitude for this then that’s great and you should be able to keep your printer alive and free to print on.
However, there are a lot of 3D printer users who don’t have that skill or aptitude for repairs or maintenance of their machine and will look to pay someone else to do it for them. Let’s face it, if you have any other electrical appliance in your home you probably won’t try and fix it yourself. If my TV stopped working for instance I certainly wouldn’t try and fix it myself unless I wanted to make it worse. You’ll therefore find that there are more and more 3D printer repair services springing up all over the place.
I have a story to tell you now about a friend of mine who, like me, got into 3D printing as a hobby but he decided to buy his first printer during the pandemic. Unfortunately, due to circumstances related to the downturn in business at that time, he found himself out of work for the first time in his life. With a house and two children to support he turned to 3D printing and found a niche in the market where he can sell a particular item that no one else was offering. I won’t say what it is but he was able to make a living from it and support his family. This has built and he then realised that there was money to be made in 3D printer repairs. He now repairs on average one printer a day which you can imagine is quite lucrative.
This is obviously a perfect success story but does hopefully give you an idea of what can be achieved through perseverance against adversity and the simple act of buying a 3D printer!
Making it Big
I’ve shown you a few ideas of how to make money 3d printing and hopefully these will inspire you to take your 3D printing skills to the next level.
Whether its just to make a bit of money to keep you in printing materials or as a career change or small business, there are a number of options open to you. Experience and patience is the key in my opinion so don’t buy a 3D printer and expect the money to roll in as soon as you’ve printed a few things. Build slowly and as your printer does, layer by layer until you get to the top of wherever you’re heading.
You may not make a fortune but you may at least enjoy what you do while also making some money.