Team of people looking at an object created by a 3D printer.
From eyeglasses and jewelry to forensic evidence, there are several ways that your 3D printer can become the catalyst for a new business venture. — Getty Images/vgajic

3D printing, also known as additive printing, is an industry that continues to innovate and grow, offering a multitude of opportunities for the aspiring entrepreneur to print designs on demand. This technology-driven discipline utilizes computer aided design (CAD) and a specialty printer to create detailed solid (3D) objects, primarily using thermoplastics and a growing list of materials, through a sophisticated layering method that allows items of any shape or size to be created with precision.

3D printing is environmentally efficient, known for producing zero waste, and it is a lower cost option than traditional manufacturing. It is expected that by 2025, the global 3D printing and services market will reach $50 billion. Starting a small 3D printing business requires a 3D printer, as well as plastic filament reels and design software for beginners. Identifying your niche and allowing for personalization is key. The businesses below are primed for at-home startup and offer something for every interest and expertise.

Prototypes

You can build a successful 3D printing business by producing prototypes for others with a quick turnaround time. Entrepreneurs with a vision or design that they hope to bring to life look to 3D printing experts for rapid, lower cost options for product development compared to traditional manufacturing methods. There are a lot of prototype production services, so building an expertise and a solid reputation in a particular niche could be beneficial. You can increase your success if you are an engineer and are adept at retooling, refining and offering ways to improve upon a design.

Eyeglasses

The growth in popularity of customization has had a major impact on the eyeglass market. Eyeglasses wearers can drive the design process for 3D eyeglasses, creating distinctive frames that fit their style and comfort needs through measurements taken by a 3D scanner. The category, from reading glasses to sports goggles, is expected to see significant growth, worth a projected $500 million by the end of 2027. Considering 45% of eyewear goes unsold and is discarded each year, 3D printed eyewear presents a lot of efficiencies for manufacturing and the environment. The nylon powder used to make 3D eyewear can be reused, eliminating waste unlike traditionally made eyewear.

Toys

Toys are among the easiest items to create with 3D printing and are sought-after items among those who are always looking to add to their doll, action figure, fidget spinner, toy car/truck and bath toy collections. Chess or board game pieces are hot 3D printed items that enhance the gaming experience via customization and personalization. Of course, 3D printing also has great implications for toy replacements and replacement parts — after all, who wouldn’t want to be a hero in salvaging a child’s beloved doll or action figure? But there are also safety regulations and copyright laws to consider. While intellectual property laws often consider items produced for private means to be fair trade, copying trademarked or patented proprietary designs can lead to legal action and penalties.

Jewelry

More and more jewelry designers are using 3D printing to produce their pieces, from rings to bracelets to earrings. Between 2020-2024, the 3D jewelry business is forecasted to grow by $1.95 billion, a 21% compound annual growth rate (CAGR). The popularity can be attributed to the efficiency in creating intricately detailed designs and the significantly quicker production times. There are 3D jewelry printers that allow for casting and are better able to utilize metals, nylons and other materials specific to jewelry making. Oftentimes, designers will start with a plastic model and make adjustments to the design until perfect and then produce the piece in metal. To get started, 3Design, Matrix and JewelCAD all offer design software specifically for jewelry printing. For those who prefer to focus solely on the design process and leave the 3D printing to someone else, there are several services who will take your 3D design model and produce the finished product.

The legal arena has had an increased demand for 3D printing that can help to recreate anything from defective products in liability cases to crime scenes in criminal cases.

Spare parts

Specializing in 3D printing of spare parts can be very lucrative. Manufacturers are often faced with the challenges producing spare parts present in terms of cost and inventory. Many simply do not have the space to house all the parts that go into assembling their products or the budgets that are required to make and stock them. Add to that the delays in ordering parts from overseas and the impact that has on customer relationships and businesses can find themselves in trouble when repairs or replacements are needed. One solution is for manufacturers to digitize a catalog of parts that can be printed on demand. As a small business specializing in spare parts, you can be the source for local service providers and tradespeople to look to when a replacement or special fitting is required. Decentralizing manufacturing helps to shorten or eliminate the carbon footprint of transporting parts, a major advancement toward greater sustainability.

Promotional products

If you have ever tried to order custom items for promotional purposes or for an event, the minimum quantities required often make it prohibitive and the long lead times mean merchandise takes weeks, if not months, to arrive. Enter 3D printing. With a 3D printer, you can get the word out to local businesses, politicians, families and schools that you have the ability to turn around products that creatively brand their messages, businesses, parties/events and travels in no time, without minimum quantities. Promotional goods are expected to represent over $15 billion in sales in 2021. Eco-friendly products and work-from-home goods are among the hottest trends in promotional items. While most businesses will already have established logos and graphics from which to work from, if you happen to have graphic design skill, you can leverage that for greater profitability.

Printer rental

With the cost of a 3D printer averaging around $1,000, many entrepreneurs who would like to explore implications of the technology on their ideas just don’t have the money to invest and test. There is also a market for those in need of short term access for a small scale project. If you have the resources, you can make considerable money renting or leasing out your 3D printer and materials to commercial and residential customers. Start with a Google Business listing, a website with photos, social media advertising and word-of-mouth brand building. It’s a good idea to differentiate the pricing between private customers and commercial businesses. Weekly rentals could garner a couple hundred per week or $500-$600 monthly, plus cost of supplies and training.

Home decor

For those with a passion for home decor, 3D printing lends itself well to the housewares market. Vases, lamps, planters, photo frames, dishes, drinkware, placemats and cutlery are all easily produced through additive printing. Complex designs with unique textures and finishes can be printed with relative ease. The key is to develop a unique aesthetic and define your niche. Set up an e-commerce site from which to feature your designs and then print on demand to customer specs. At the same time you can leverage existing traffic on sites like Etsy where customers are always looking for interesting and unique home decor that reflects their personal style and a desire for one-of-a kind items.

Smartphone cases

Smartphone cases are one of those accessories that people often like to reflect their personality or tastes. They are also something people quickly tire of and like to change up often, however valuing protective features remains a constant in their purchasing decisions. If you have a good eye for what’s trending in design, fashion and pop culture and can design to the tastes and interests of customers while offering protective features and materials, a 3D smartphone printing business can be a great small business opportunity. In 2019, the global revenue for protective smartphone cases was $21.67 billion with an expected CAGR of 6.3% between 2019-2027. On average, one large spool of filament makes approximately 200 smartphone cases and there are many variations of filaments, depending on the type of case and durability desired.

Forensic evidence

Dream job alert for "CSI" or "Law & Order" fans: The legal arena has had an increased demand for 3D printing that can help recreate anything from defective products in liability cases to crime scenes in criminal cases. Imagine being tasked with 3D printing the fingerprints of a suspect or cars that can be used to simulate an accident. Many medical malpractice suits require anatomically correct body parts and can garner hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to bring to life.

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Published March 18, 2021