3D Printing for Fun… and Profit?
If you own a 3d printer, or know someone who does, you will have heard the suggestion that “you should run a home business – you would make out like a bandit!”
Well, before you start daydreaming….
… we need to talk…
We need to cover of the following questions:
- What are you going to be selling?
- Who do you plan to sell to?
- How will you sell these prints?
- How much could you charge for a print?
- Will it be worth it?
What are you going to be selling?
Whatever you print will originate in an .stl file. What .stl files are you planning to print? If you are designing your own files on CAD and are then printing the resulting files, you can probably skip this part, but otherwise we need to just bore you a bit with some legal-speak…
The most common location most 3D printing gamers use to source the .stls is Thingiverse, the sharing site run by Maker-bot. Each person posting there has several choices of what license to post under. The default one is unrestricted “Creative Common use”. If you plan to use a “Creative Common use” license, courtesy still calls on you, in my opinion, to contact the creator through Thingiverse’s message board and ask them to clear your use of their files. Many creators on Thingiverse never gave the license a second thought when they first loaded their files, and just left the licensing at the default. If they subsequently learn of the commercial use of their work, they may pull their profile from Thingiverse. I know of outstanding creators who have done just that; they intended their work be shared among fellow enthusiasts and never considered their work would end up as unpaid Research and Development for others. So please drop the creator a line.
The other option will be “Non-Commercial”. That clearly means “personal use only”, so “no printing for profit”. If you are seeking to use files under that license, please contact the creator and see if you can negotiate a license exemption. I know I really appreciate it when people do that, and I have negotiated agreements, renewable annually, with small home-business printers.
“Can’t I just use the files anyway; who is ever going to know?”
Well, like a lot of other things, social media has changed the world. If you sell a model and then the purchaser posts the finished product on a Facebook page, saying “look at this great 3D printed *tank/gun/gizmo” that I bought at the Bolt Action Tournament”… Well, a creator will know his own files, and it will come back and bite you. Yes, no one will likely launch a legal action from across the ocean for the sake of a few bucks, but your credibility will take a hit. So please respect the file’s creator. Maintaining control of their intellectual property is the primary concern of the license and being forthright from the start will set the tone for a mutual respectful relationship.
When you are cleared to use the .stls, be sure to accredit the file’s creator in your posting. That allows the potential buyer to check the file out online. That helps prevent any potential misunderstanding of what you are offering.
Who do you plan to sell to?
Some 3D printing home businesses focus on a specific scale or game format, while others cover off the entire table top gaming world, from 6mm to 28mm, from historical to fantasy genres. At the start you will likely want to limit your target market to what you are most comfortable with; e.g. game(s) you already play.
You will want to ensure that you clearly state what manner of printing you are using – e.g. FDM (filament), SLA (resin), or molded resin models. I know a lot of people have quite negative opinions of FDM printed models, because they have come across some of the very crude prints that are sold online and over some Facebook pages; printed at a fast speed at .2mm layer heights, they sell cheap and they look cheap. You will need to sell not just your model but your quality to your potential buyers.
How will you sell these prints?
How do you reach a market? That depends on how much time and money do you wish to invest into this venture. You don’t want to “go big” and end up with 30 orders for a Churchill tank (a 20-hour print in 28mm scale) when all you have is a clapped-out CR-10 in your basement. As you see from posts on-line in various Bolt Action Facebook forums, there are a lot of posts of disgruntled folk vented how their on-line order hasn’t been filled within three or four weeks of ordering. We are in a world of Amazon Prime where the consumer market has become even more used to instant gratification.
So we go back to the “start slow” mantra. A local wargaming Facebook page, word of mouth, perhaps print some up and rent a table at a gaming tournament.
If you get comfortable with it, and it seems like it may be worthwhile, consider posting sites such as Etsy, Cargoh and Coriandr .
How much could you charge for a print?
If you are a 3d printing gamer, you have heard that question when you place one of your prints on the game table. “So, how much did it cost you to print that?”. You haven’t had your second cup of coffee so you answer too quickly and say “about $3 (worth of filament)”… and then you see that look.
“So why can’t you print it for me for $3… heck I will give you $5!”
This is akin to asking an Uber/Lyft driver how much it would cost in gas to drive to the airport. It might cost $5 worth of fuel… so jump in and offer to give him a 5-star rating for the $5 ride. You would be ignoring the cost of the driver’s time, the wear on their car, and other sundry expenses of staying in the business (car insurance, maintenance, commute times to riders, etc.). Matching that comparison to 3D printing, you are not only paying for the filament, you paid for the machine, you are running the file through a slicer program, setting up the printer, monitoring the print, likely cleaning the support material off the finished print, and lastly you will be eating the costs of the inevitable failed prints.
So you will want to establish a costing basis to ensure this is all going to be worthwhile.
I don’t print commercially, but I do print for friends within my local gaming group, and use my own files, so I have no licensing issues. I run a file through Cura and look at the estimated print time and charge an “$ per hour of printing”, all inclusive. It is a lot easier for me to determine a fair price and to let us both know whether it will be worth it; e.g. that Churchill and its 20-hour print time will be a non-starter for me to print for anyone but myself.
You will want to work out something that you can standardize, so that you aren’t trying to questimate your pricing. The “$# per hour of printing” may be a worthwhile one.
Is it worth it?
This is the big question. You will need to run through the following check list and be able to answer in the positive to each of them
- Do you have the capacity to handle the potential demand? How many printers are you prepared to invest in?
- Do you have the time and space necessary to not only do the printing but the other tasks – managing customer’s orders, tracking your inventory, tracking each order’s shipping, dealing with payments?
- Can you acquire the proper licensing exemptions to allow you to legitimately print the .stls?
- Are you able to do this and remain competitive with larger commercial operations?
- Are you going to enjoy the experience?
When my youngest daughter was a teen, she worked in the deli department at a local grocery. I will never forget her answer when she was asked if she liked her job; “it would be a great job if it wasn’t for the customers”. Most people are great. But we know there are some exceptions…
There is a potential to garner some extra cash through your hobby – I save all my earnings into a separate stash to help buy my next printer – and so long as your venture remains “fun” then it may be something to investigate.
Just do it with your eyes wide open.