Dear Lifehacker, I recently bought myself a 3D Printer and was wondering what I could do to monetise this expensive purchase? I have considered options like printing on demand with sites like 3DHubs, or making something I could sell on Etsy, but are there many other options? Are there any issues or risks I should be wary of? Thanks, TemminkAU
3D Printing image via Shutterstock
Dear TemminkAU, First off, congratulations on becoming an early adopter of a kind of technology that is increasingly moving into the mainstream. Having that extra bit of experience is going to help you take advantage of the opportunities that will no doubt arise in that industry. 3D printing is currently in high demand, and there are a number of ways that you can monetise this service. First, you'll need to take stock of your skills and capabilities.
Can you 3D model, or will you be relying on printing other people's models? Do you have a 3D scanner or something that can be repurposed, like a Kinect, so you can scan objects into 3D models? Are you a designer who can create gorgeous jewellery and sculptures that people would love to collect or would you be better at thinking up parts and extensions for people's favourite gadgets?
3DHubs, as you mentioned, is the most well-known service to monetise your printer and being the most well-known also means you will be able to attract more potential customers, even if there's a bit more competition. A listing on 3DHubs will never make you enough money to quit your day job, but a couple of orders through every now and again will at least help you pay for filament and the running costs of your machine. Research the other hubs around your area and figure out what you can do to be more competitive and attract more business. Even if you take your 3D printing business in another direction, a listing on 3DHubs will still bring some money in every now and again.
Another similar service is offered by My Mini Factory, called 'Connect'. Rather than listing on a job by job basis like 3DHubs, My Mini Factory seeks to connect designers to printers in order to form more long-term and reliable working relationships. It's like a Yellow Pages but for people with 3D printers. You can upload a gallery of your work and follow other people's work through this system, and hopefully attract a designer who would like to print things with you in the long term.
If you're a 3D designer experienced in creating printable models, then obviously there are far more options open to you to profit from it. One Reddit user found a market when a part on a drone he owned broke, and he designed and printed replacement parts for people who had a similar problem. If you have a creative mind, then there's also no end to the options in jewellery, sculpture and home decor that can be 3D printed and sold on Etsy, eBay or even your own independent shop through other online services. Shapeways is a service that lets designers sell objects that are printed by the company if they don't have a printer of their own, but browsing through their catalogue might help you figure out what kind of 3D-printed objects are commonly bought.
3D-printed cosplay pieces are in high demand right now -- although this where you might need to be a bit wary. While a lot of stores and cosplayers are printing their cosplay pieces, even things ripped directly from a game's files, profiting from these items could be seen as a type of bootlegging. If you're making your own models for the items you're printing then you shouldn't run into any problems, however, especially for small details like belt buckles, brooches and jewellery. While there are a number of cosplay buy and sell sites and services around, the best thing to do would be to jump into your local cosplayers' Facebook group (usually listed by state and easily found by searching something like "NSW Cosplayers") and let them know that your services are on offer.
Unfortunately a single printer will never really be enough to run a business off, but as a hobbyist it's still very possible to recoup some of the costs of running your printer.
Have a question you want to put to Ask Lifehacker? Send it using our contact form.