10 Ways to Make Money from 3D Printing

I recently identified 3D printing as one of the 13 Trends That Are Changing the World and compiled 3D Printing Resources for Beginners, but this being a blog about the business of technology, I wanted to create a list of 10 possible businesses that could be created around the 3D printing industry. You can use the STAIR process to figure out which one best suits your past skills, experience, and equipment:

10 Ways to Make Money from 3D Printing

  • Sell raw materials to 3D printer suppliers – 3D printing materials include many types of plastics to higher-end filament like metals, paper, and ceramics. Stainless steel, for example, comes in powder form and can be infused with bronze. Likewise, silver can be mixed with wax. Any business with access to these raw materials stands to benefit from an increase in 3D printing production.
  • Sell 3D printer supplies to 3D printers – Right now most 3D printers use plastic PLA, ABS, or PVA filaments. There are already a large host of printing material suppliers, but it’s still not something you can pick up at your local Wal-Mart…yet. It’s too late to have a first-mover advantage, but you might not want that anyway. Remember, Apple wasn’t the first one to make MP3 players.
  • Make and sell your own 3D printer – Did you know that the Makerbot is open source? At least it was. With the help of some well-laid plans and an Arduino board, you can build your own 3D printer. Make it your own and you can start your own line of 3D printers. Here’s a guide on how to build a 3D printer, but it’s one thing to build them. You’ll also have to learn how to sell them.
  • 3D print objects as a service – 3D printing services like Sculpteo, Shapeways, and Ponoko are showing us all how this is done, but that’s only three and there’s a 99% chance that none of them are local to where you live. While the Internet is great for many things, there is value to having a local printer to print everything from trophies to customized cup lids for restaurants.
  • Scan 3D objects as a service – If you can afford a $230 Kinect for Windows you can start a 3D scanning business. This is what Reconstruct.me does.  In November of 2012 Microsoft announced Kinect for Windows. In that article there is a link to Skanect, which is “3D scanning made easy”. I’m not talking about writing software here, I’m talking about buying a device and using software as a service.
  • Create a marketplace/trading system for 3D printable objects – I thought I was the first to think of this, but of course I was wrong. That’s exactly what Thingiverse is and it’s part of what Shapeways does. If your’e interested in this business model, think niche – “the riches are in the niches” and the sooner you can drive deep down into a niche and setup shop, the more likely you are to succeed.
  • Sell 3D printer technology to oil companies and/or NASA – This is a process of taking an existing product and finding new markets for it. I did this when I suggested that Pebble Watches could be sold to Dentists. By identifying a market segment who could use a product, you’re going vertical and this is similar to driving down into a niche. In this case, the market is remote workers with big pocketbooks.
  • Consult with 3D printer companies on technology and logistics – Not every egghead who comes up with a new 3D printer is going to know how to run a 3D printer business. That’s where consultants and service companies that choose to go niche and vertical with 3D printing companies have a chance to succeed and grow. By serving the needs of a growing industry, your business can benefit too. Everybody wins.
  • Help guide and craft new copyright laws; give legal counsel – While you’re probably going to have to be or know a lawyer or lobbyist, there is definitely a growing need for legal counsel in this newly developing industry. Questions about what is and isn’t able to be licensed and what is or isn’t copyrighted is going to come to a head when people want to expand trademarked product‘s [fan fiction] universes.
  • Help market 3D printers or 3D printable objects – In the same way business professionals can help 3D printing companies manage customer development, build an e-commerce website, and develop organizational habits, they are going to need help learning how to advertise, how to market a product, and how to get more customers. They are going to need to learn SEO, content marketing, and how to build a platform.

Money Multiplier

Erich Stauffer on 3D PrintingIn monetary economics, a money multiplier is a ratio, which is generally believed to be 10 to 1 meaning that any dollar produced, produces 10 more dollars. A similar effect is true for business processes and opportunities. This due to a combination of the adjacent possible of new technologies and from the network effects that happen whenever a new business, process, or industry is born. The implications from this entirely new industry are enormous especially because it is mostly additive. 3D printing doesn’t replace or displace traditional manufacturing, it simply broadens it. Things that could have been created before were not because it didn’t make economic sense, but once people are given the opportunity and resources these new things will be created. It’s similar to how pictures of your food and friends weren’t important enough to carry a camera around for before, but now that your camera and sharing ability is on your phone, companies like Instagram exist and get bought by a billion dollars.

3D Printing Resources for Beginners

This video, Massimo Banzi: How Arduino is open-sourcing imagination was filmed in June of 2012 and it was one my first introductions to 3D printing. I heard about it on NPR that same month when Ira Flatow said, Can 3D Printers Reshape The World?. Since then I have learned a lot more, but I’m barely scraping the surface. I’m a newbie and this post is for beginners like me looking for pathways into the 3D printing world. So to start, I’ll start you where I started, with this video:

Here are some links and information included in the video:

  • Thingiverse – now “MakerBot Thingiverse” – a place for you to share your digital designs.
  • Arduino – an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.
  • Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design – An international centre of excellence for interaction design and innovation; seems to have replaced Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.
  • Creative Commons License – copyright licenses and tools forge a balance inside the traditional “all rights reserved” setting that copyright law creates.
  • GNU General Public License (GPL) – The GNU General Public License is a free, copyleft license for software and other kinds of works.
  • Android (Google) Accessory Development Kit (ADK) – a reference implementation for hardware manufacturers and hobbyists to use as a starting point for building accessories for Android.

So it turns out that that video, while it mentions 3D printing in the beginning, has more to do with the Maker revolution. Here’s some 3D printing resources I collected:

What software should I use if I’m a beginner in 3D design?

  • Google provides a free, easy to use application called Google Sketchup. This tool allows you to design everything you want in 3D, through an intuitive interface, and offers free 3D models for download.
  • Wings 3D is another free 3D application; the website has a forum, which is very useful to find answers to all your questions.
  • Blender is available for free, but targets a more experienced audience.
  • Newcomer Sculptris works like you are sculpting directly from clay.
  • Make Human is a free specialized in human body 3D designs and lets you play with all body and face details. Amazing!
  • (versions compatible with Sculpteo for 3D printing: “Nightly Build” or v. 0.9.1).
  • GLC Player is a free application which allows you to easily view 3D models. It’s lighter than regular modelling software so comes in handy when you just need to quickly check a 3D model before uploading it to sculpteo.com (are the materials properly linked to the model ? Are the textures in the right place? Has the model changed before and after the export?). GLC Player also lets you categorize 3D models into albums (like you would with a photo album).
  • 3D Model to Print (3DMTP) – A revolutionary cloud-based software service, focused on 3D architectural models. 3DMTP automatically, efficiently and economically transforms 3D designs, from BIM, 3D CAD, SketchUp software and other 3D visualization software into scalable and 3D printable model files.
  • Online Service
  • 3D Tin – A free browser-based CAD editor. Perfect for beginners and young makers, but with a growing list of advanced features attracting professional 3D artists as well.
  • Autodesk 123D – Free, fun, easy to use apps to take you from photos to modeling to making.

What 3D printing services are available?

  • Shapeways – a 3D Printing marketplace and community.
  • Sculpteo – Innovative 3D printing service for creative people – great FAQ with lots of resources

What 3D printers are available?

Are there any other 3D printing guides?

  • MAKE Magazine’s Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing

Other Free Design Software:

  • Dia – Diagramming tool like Microsoft Visio
  • Auto CAD trial (CD or Download)
  • Smart Draw

I recently identified 3D printing as one of the 13 Trends That Are Changing the World and will soon be writing up a list of 10 Ways to Make Money from 3D Printing.

For Those About to Make, I Salute You

In the late 70’s there was a DIY revolution happening in computers at a time when early adopters were literally building their own PCs. A few of these builders got the notion to turn this hobby into a business and we got businesses like HP and Apple out of it. Now the same type of revolution is happening with Makers because of advances in tools that have allowed the everyday man with a passion to build something a few years ago that would have been financially implausible.

Chris Anderson of WIRED magazine has written extensively about the Maker movement and has written a new book about it called, Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. An excerpt from this book was included as an article in WIRED about how the New MakerBot Replicator will change the face of desktop manufacturing. In the article, Anderson describes the two main modes of manufacturing, “When 3-D printers make an object, they use an ‘additive’ technology, which is to say they build objects layer by layer from the bottom up. (By contrast, other computer-controlled machines, such as the CNC router and CNC mill, are ‘subtractive’; they use a spinning tool to cut or grind away material.)

A Maker, Michal Zalewski, has created documentation for one type of subtractive milling called the
Guerrilla guide to CNC machining, mold making, and resin casting; Benchtop CNC manufacturing tutorial for robot builders, model makers, and other hobbyists. He writes, “For the past decade, we were being promised a revolution in desktop manufacturing – but unbeknownst to many, a simple, affordable, and home-workshop-friendly solution is already well within the reach. The only problem with [CNC] is that the workflows and materials suitable for small scale, hobby engineering are almost completely undocumented, and difficult to discover on your own.” Zalewski has turned this frustration into a passion and has documented what he has learned so that all can benefit. He got started by buying, “a small CNC mill (Roland MDX-15), set up a resin casting workshop, and invested months of intermittent trial, error, and triumph to understand and befriend both technologies – and document them so that others don’t have to go through all the pain.” While the additive MakerBot Replicator2 is currently hovering at around $2500, Zalewski states that you can get a CNC workshop setup for around $2000. Contrast that with CEREC crown machines, which are subtractive mills that make crowns for teeth and cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Co-Working Spaces for Micro Manufacturing

If you’re not interested in buying your own equipment and are close enough to one of these co-working facilities for Makers, you can experience the DIY revolution together:


  • MakerSpace – Victoria, BC, Canada – a 3D printer, laser engraver, welding, woodworking, electronics, and a blacksmith shop (with casting furnace)
  • Site3 – Toronto, CA – a variety of milling machines as well as a laser cutter, 3D printer and a new DIY 3-axis CNC that we are putting together right now. Membership works on a monthly fee like you might expect, and each member is given responsibilities for maintaining the shop.

  • Robots & Dinosaurs – Sydney, Australia – a couple of cnc mills, a choice of several 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a whole bunch of other useful gear, and people happy to show you how to use them.
  • Make, Hack, Void – Canberra, Australia

If you know of more, please add them to the comments below.