In just a few short years, 3D printing has gone from “what’s that?” to “how can I get in on this?”
Why? Here are some key stats:
- The 3D printing market is predicted to grow 30% per year to 2026.
- There are over 422,000 working 3D printers in the USA.
- The USA, UK, France, Germany & China are all heavily adopting 3D printing.
Continuing to explode in popularity for both hobbyists and industrial uses, budding entrepreneurs are looking for opportunities to start a 3D printing business. But what opportunities are there?
Honestly, there are so many industries being shaken up by 3D printing — medical, hearing aids, dental, metal part production, spacecraft, even food — that listing every potential use would take too long.
Some have already taken areas of 3D printing and made themselves synonymous with the sector. Wiivv and 3D printed custom sandals, Relativity Space and 3D printed rockets, and Sonova and 3D printed hearing aids. What will your 3D printing business be known for?
This article focuses on how to start a 3D printing business, which 3D printing businesses you could start, and what you need to be able to start and be successful in the 3D printing industry.
How to start a 3D printing business
Naturally, to start a 3D printing business you need to know everything there is to know about 3D printing. You’ll need to know your 3D printer — and the technology that powers it — in and out.
Write your 3D printing business plan
Now you need to create a business plan. Though you feel you already know exactly what you need to do, it’s always best to get your thoughts down in writing, as well as any predictions around revenues, sales, and the amount you’re prepared to invest.
When writing this, think of what you will need to spend money on: potentially renting a location, buying new equipment, hiring or training people — and do you have any guaranteed income you can factor in, or are you starting from zero?
It’s very likely your 3D printing business plan will change dramatically as your business adapts and changes — and that’s fine! — but a business plan will get your future and present ideas down on paper. If you’re planning on lending money from a bank or other institution, a business plan is crucial.
Buying your equipment
If you haven’t chosen which 3D printer (or 3D printers if you’re planning on multiple), you’ll need to choose carefully based on what you plan to print, or what services you plan on offering. Prototypes are often made using SLS 3D printers, as well as MJF, PolyJet, FDM, and more.
For deciding which to buy, you can check out our guide to every type of 3D printer.
If you know what type of 3D printer you’re planning on using, but aren’t sure on which printer, you can check out our buyer’s guides:
- Our buyer’s guide for the best FDM 3D printers
- Buyer’s guide for the best resin 3D printers
- The best SLS 3D printers
- Our metal 3D printer buyer’s guide
3D printers don’t run themselves, so you’ll need to make sure you have the right software, including a 3D slicer such as Cura, and if you’re designing your own models, a 3D modeling software tool. If you’re managing multiple 3D printers, you may want to invest in software to manage them more easily.
For FDM 3D printing you’ll need a steady supply of filament in every material and color range you plan to offer. For more industrial printing you may want to offer Polycarbonate, HIPS, PEEK, Nylon and ASA, but for more standard jobs you may just need PETG, ABS and PLA. The same goes for resins for resin 3D printing for any planned uses, including castable for jewelry molds, and any powders for SLS.
Running costs & marketing costs
If you’re planning on launching your own website or webstore, you’ll need to decide how you’ll accept payments, which cart software to use such as Shopify, or Woocommerce on WordPress, and which hosting provider to use.
For marketing, you can opt for social media ads across Facebook, Instagram, or PPC ads on Google for a quick buzz. You can also try to capture people’s attention through generally interesting social media content, such as showing your factory in action, some of the cool things you’ve 3D printed, or vlogging yourself at work. For industrial B2B clients, LinkedIn and direct outreach may be better options.
Where to sell your products
If you’re planning to sell your models on existing platforms like Etsy, Amazon or eBay, you’ll need to decide your plans for those. Or, you may decide to niche down and sell on specialized 3D model platforms. If you’re planning on acting as a service, signing up to Treatstock or Makexyz can save you marketing time and pair you directly with clients.
Which 3D printing business should I start?
A true visionary may want to create an entirely new category, like 3D printed rockets, pizza or hearing aids. Nevertheless, here are some tried and tested existing 3D printing business models:
3D printing services
There are two ways to make money with your 3D printers printing parts for other people: standard consumer printing, and B2B 3D printing.
Printing consumer models
Many creatives, nerds and designers just want their design, such as favorite D&D model or character, in front of them, right now — and they don’t want to buy an entire 3D printer just to print it. Instead, they’ll find someone to do the odd job for them here and there.
Starting a 3D printing business printing consumer models requires less start-up investment, less expensive filaments or resins, and perhaps slightly lower accuracy and precision requirements. More affordable desktop 3D printers will work here, so you could potentially get started as a 3D printing business for just a few hundred dollars with an Ender 3 or Prusa 3D printer.
That isn’t to say there aren’t jobs for individuals that require more industrial 3D printers. Classic car fans looking to get a car part 3D printed will require perfect accuracy, and with the crisp surface finish only accessible on higher end machines. But for most consumer jobs, less professional 3D printers should suffice.
There are even marketplaces for local 3D printer service businesses that’ll help you find customers. Treatstock, for example, puts you in contact instantly with thousands of local 3D printer businesses to have your parts printed for you in a variety of different materials.
By becoming a vendor, you potentially skip the expensive marketing costs associated with drumming up business at the beginning of your 3D printing business journey. There are other similar sites to Treatstock like makexyz, but 3D Hubs no longer allow individuals to sign up and offer their printing services.
B2B 3D printing businesses
In B2B — business to business — 3D printing businesses make prototypes and other parts for companies that want to test them. This could be for shape and aesthetics, or functional testing based on how it holds up in certain situation.
Common client needs include architectural and interior design models (a huge advantage if you can print multiple colors, such as by using a Palette), sunglasses and other fashion prototypes, engineering prototypes, resin, ceramic or metal prototypes for various industries, and medical parts, including orthotics, prosthetics and medical implants.
Your ability to run this kind of 3D printing business really depends on the 3D printers you have. With massively growing demand for metal 3D printing — predicted to grow to a $11 billion industry by 2024 — metal additive manufacturing for automotive, space, medical and other uses is a great area to launch.
However, metal 3D printers cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in most cases, so this is not a venture for anyone looking to get in cheap and make some beer money.
Standard affordable 3D printers may not offer the level of precision companies expect when they hire your 3D printing business to print parts and prototypes for them. And many companies may be looking for more expensive types of 3D printing for their parts, such as SLS 3D printers or even PolyJet.
Overall, if you’re planning on starting a B2B 3D printing business acting as a 3D printing services for industrial clients, you’ll probably need a large investment to start with. For marketing, social media and more hobbyist forms of marketing won’t work as well, so you’ll need to either harness PPC ads or grow your network within the industry to find contacts looking to get manufacturing done. But, with this big risk comes the potential for big reward.
Open up your own 3D printed model store
If you’ve got an eye for designs that’ll sell well online, such as miniatures, tabletop models and D&D-esque designs, this might be the route for you.
These 3D printed toys and similar models are always popular, and there will always be a demand for 3D character prints of peoples’ favorite video game or movie characters, musicians, actors and more. Cosplayers are always looking for new elements to use, too.
If you’re a good 3D designer — and if you want to learn, check out our ranking of the best free 3D modeling software tools for beginners — you can design your own creations harnessing your boundless creativity and signature style, or just create 3D models based on real people or things. You can then either sell these models and send them fully printed, or sell the STL file and let them print their own.
You’ll need to price your models based on the amount of filament or resin they use, as well as the time value of your 3D printer’s time. In addition, since you’ve created real tangible models, posting them to your customers will cost money, too. This can vary wildly depending on whether your customer is in your city, or if they’re half way across the globe.
It’s safest to use your own files, as many models from free STL file sites may not authorize you to commercialize them. If you want to add even more value, you could even paint your models, making them stand out and letting you charge higher prices.
You’ll need to think about marketing for this type of 3D printing business. People are unlikely to just find your 3D printing shop unless you’re savvy about getting your name out there: either on social media, or by paid ads such as PPC on Google or Facebook ads. You’ll need to continually optimize any paid ads to make sure you’re selling enough products to make the ads profitable, and keep a beady eye on the data.
If successful however, it’s one of the most rewarding and independent ways to make it as a 3D printing business.
Become a 3D printer reseller and expert
Most cheap 3D printers are bought from Amazon. They come with instructions to get you going, and normally have some form of tech support if you run into serious problems.
However, with more complex professional and industrial 3D printers, installation, training and ongoing support may be required.
Resellers sell printers from major 3D printer manufacturers to domestic or local customers, and can provide all the required support and installation locally so the manufacturer doesn’t need to be involved.
To be a reseller, you’ll need to be an expert on every 3D printer made by the brand you’d be reselling, and may need to purchase one at full price first to fully understand it before becoming licensed and gaining access to wholesale rates.
To find customers you’ll need a full understanding of the uses and applications of the particular 3D printers you sell, as well as likely buyer personas. The more industrial and expensive the 3D printers you sell, the smaller your potential client base will likely be.
Another variant of this is focusing on education and 3D printing in schools. Experts on 3D printing may be required to assist with either informing schools to install 3D printers, creating and teaching, or selling to educational establishments. However, check the regulatory rules for your country first.
Overall, with massive industry growth — especially on the industrial side — additive manufacturing is very attractive area to be in. If you’ve got the risk-taking chops, business acumen and love and knowledge for 3D printing, and are willing to put the work in, who knows, perhaps you could be the next 3D printing billionaire!