How to Make Money With 3D Printing

Jason Reynolds is a printer with 3D Hubs. For the past year, he’s been printing custom parts for the local community, and last night he…

Alex Glow
5 years ago3D Printing

Jason Reynolds is a printer with 3D Hubs. For the past year, he’s been printing custom parts for the local community, and last night he shared his accumulated expertise with our Hackster Live meetup. We learned a ton!

Printing tips from the pro

Jason’s make-or-break concern is bed adhesion. If your print comes loose during the process, it’s all over in a tangle of stringy filament. And big prints are susceptible to warping a corner or two up off the bed, as heat is applied on top. Many people will use blue painter’s tape, the more expensive heat-resistant kapton tape, specialized BuildTak, kindergarten-style glue stick, or even hairspray to help prints stay put. And they still need to be easily removed with a putty knife, if not your fingernails.

This pro’s “set it and forget it” approach is to use rafts — wide, thin surfaces beneath the print, lightly attached on the top, secure below. Printing raftless, you’ll save material in the short term, and get a very smooth finish on the bottom side. But in the long run, you lose time babysitting the first 10–30 minutes of the print, and messed-up prints waste even more material.

That said, Jason saves the extra bits of filament because we’re getting closer to a market-ready recycling option. For a professional printer, that really adds up. Plus, it’s great for the earth — PLA can be composted, but all types of filament can pile up while a design is developed.

Simplify3D is his slicer of choice, with endless options for customization. It plugs into many other software tools as well.

Challenges of the trade

Customer education is front-and-center. Having printed hundreds of models over a year of professional manufacturing, Jason knows the ins and outs of print orientation, sizing, materials, strength-to-weight with infill percentages, and more. Often, he’ll write back to a customer with suggested changes before accepting a print job that might fail. “If you have a thin print with just two shells side-by-side, they won’t adhere well without infill, and might pull apart,” he says. “I can glue those together, but it’s better to modify the print.” Most will graciously accept his advice.

Controlling order in-flow is also essential, such as managing big and small jobs as efficiently as possible, giving customers the option to pay more for a squeezed-in job or choose a different shop.

You’ve got to have a reliable printer and/or technician, so you can get a next-day job done when your printer jams at midnight. Know your printer’s quirks and limitations, and how to get around them. Jason uses an Ultimaker, and has a spare print head ready to swap in whenever needed — so he can fix the jam while the job continues. He has a spare print bed, too, since this machine comes with a removable one. He can take his time removing a stubborn piece without damaging it.

Making money

It’s all about repeat business, and that’s one of the benefits of working through 3D Hubs: they deliver customers, and it’s Jason’s job to make them happy with print quality and service. Good reviews mean a good listing, and the 5-star “Jinxbot” shop tops the San Jose listings.

He’s been running it full-time for the last six months, and cites advertising, co-hosting events like ours, and creating 3D models as outreach methods. In the future, he’d like to expand his capacity with more printers — the key to really making money at this trade.

Once the customer uploads a model and chooses a material, 3D Hubs’ server slices it and figures out what to charge — largely based on material, time, and resolution. It usually ends up at around twice the cost of the filament, and 3D Hubs takes 12.5 percent. For small jobs, the cut makes little difference, and for large ones, it’s worth it to get in touch with the customer.

A new breed of business

3D Hubs’ model is a novel one, which they compare to Amazon and Spotify. Their slideshow cites Tom Goodwin: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

Today, this company is present in more countries than McDonald’s. They put 1 billion people within 10 miles of a 3D printer.

“If I weren’t so into 3D printing itself, I’d be on the other side, using this service,” says Jason. In fact, he has outsourced parts of a job via 3D Hubs itself — employing another shop with a higher-resolution resin printer, then delivering everything to the original customer, who desired results with as little fuss as possible.

Even for makers with their own printers, maintenance and tweaking can make employing someone else worthwhile. As Dev Kumar said on a recent Facebook thread: “The state of consumer-level 3D printers is kind of like the early days of computers, or Ham radio — you might spend a lot of time using your 3D printer to print parts to improve the fiddly performance of your 3D printer.”

[This is not a sponsored article, but] Yes, it works

Hackster has used 3D Hubs a couple of times in the past: I commissioned someone to print my Eveii chassis, and Monica used it to recruit Boston-based Autotiv for on-site printing at our hardware hackathons. All of our experiences have been superb. Jason (and his better half, Amanda) were excited to share tips and stories, and he coaxed my own finicky printer into life.

The community has helped me fix a crisis, too: I promised someone an electronic device with an enclosure, and as the deadline came down, my printer broke, nothing else worked, and I was heading to Sweden. I learned not to over-commit, but also that 3D Hubs employs “real” people: The printer made some tweaks, and I was able to send updated models through the interface, to make sure that the end product worked well.

The payoff

Jason and Amanda seem very happy with their lifestyle — she has a well-paid job and he, a self-described “house husband”, helps support them by making people’s dreams come true. Their favorite job of all time was a custom prosthetic hand and wrist for a child. The Reynolds are tangibly improving the world, print by print, and that’s enviable.

They also get to peek into the future: besides prosthetic limbs and lots of R/C vehicle parts, Jason has printed a strange assembly that was used in innovative plastic surgery (which gives me the heebie-jeebies). He’s printed lots of models from Thingiverse, including a low-poly baseball cap that became part of his beanie hat. And he’s made his own ideas come to life: a wonderful Rubik’s Cube based on Portal’s Weighted Companion Cube, and custom initialed wine-glass favors for their wedding. (The brilliant design incorporated magnets to attach them to the stemless glasses.)

Both of their jobs combine tech with creativity. He’s especially proud of a blog post ab0ut printing with fussy flexible filament, shared on the 3D Hubs internal forum. For the rest of us, it’ll be hosted — with other useful posts — on Jinxbot.com, currently under construction.

Huge ups to Jason, Amanda, Thea Nygaard of 3D Hubs for putting us in touch, and everyone out there who is ready to build a better world.

Alex Glow
The Hackster team's resident Hardware Nerd. I like robots, music, EEG, wearables, and languages. FIRST Robotics kid.
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