How You Can Profit from 3D Printing

How You Can Profit from 3D Printing

When I first discovered 3D printing several years ago, I instantly knew it was magical.  My mind was blown by the technology: an almost infinite amount of shapes can be “grown,” layer by layer, just by using a printer. This is going to be disruptive, I knew. It would empower entrepreneurs, freeing them from the constraints of traditional manufacturing. So I set off to explore the technology and the industry building up around it. 

The journey was an emotional roller coaster of exuberant heights matched by lows of disillusionment.  I would get excited to learn that General Electric was making a new part for a jet engine never before possible without 3D printing.  But then I would think about how that could apply to my life—what did I know about making and selling jet engines?—and that magical promise of freedom would feel so distant and inaccessible.  Then the excitement would return upon reading articles about people using 3D printers to make prosthetic limbs that are far more affordable.  

The possibilities seemed endless, and also overwhelming. Where should I start? What tools would I need to learn?  How would I gain access to a printer without paying thousands of dollars? I pushed forward. I taught myself the tools.  I bought a 3D printer.  I even started teaching classes.  Because of the growing hype I suddenly found myself being asked to give lectures to audiences of hundreds of people.  Then, the consulting projects started rolling in.  And even while all that was happening, I still had a feeling of disillusionment nagging at me.  

I would feel the excitement around how 3D printing can fuel someone's creativity and break down barriers to becoming an entrepreneur.  But the next day I would teach a class about it and see my students struggle in the same way that I had, frustrated and overwhelmed by not knowing how to turn the technology into a business.  On bad days, my obsession with 3D printing could feel like a glorified hobby involving loudly colored plastic. 

After so many ups and downs, I finally refined my thinking and distilled my understanding of the possibilities of the technology down to some real actionable paths.  I found that you can make money and become your own boss thanks to 3D printing.  I am now about to save you at least a year's worth of time and all the ups and downs of that emotional roller coaster that I and others have gone through. Here are three tried and tested ways that you can make money with 3D printing.

Create and sell designs.  This is the most affordable and easiest way to get started.  It’s essentially like creating a smartphone app and selling it for royalties.

* Start by learning from free CAD tools like Trimble Sketchup or TinkerCAD.  Most beginners are surprised by how easily they can whip up a complex looking design after a few tutorials. Sophisticated and professional quality designs can be made with these tools.  Make sure to leverage the available online tutorials and communities for help.
Invent a design. 
* Leverage the power of 3D printing by creating complex shapes easily, customize designs cheaply, or create moving parts which require no assembly.
Need inspiration?  Spend time perusing the 40,000+ designs on to marvel at the creativity and possibilities shared by others. 
* Once your design is complete in CAD, make sure it’s 3D printable (or “watertight,” in industry jargon).  Other free tools like netfabb or the Solid Inspector plugin for Sketchup will find and correct errors you inadvertently created.
* Now with your ready-to-print file, you just need to find an outlet to sell it.  Sites like CG Trader are pure design marketplaces which allow users to search for 3D printable designs and print them on their own 3D printers.  Other sites like Shapeways or i.Materialise allow similar services.

Buy a 3D printer and offer a 3D printing service.  While the concept is simple, this option is not quite as easy.  It will require an investment of hundreds to thousands of dollars to acquire a printer. 

* The first step is to select a printer that has the right balance of cost, output quality, versatility, and ease of use. 
* Once you have the printer in your home or office you will need to spend ample time experimenting with it and mastering its intricacies.  You will need to understand how variables like layer height, extrusion temperature, and travel speed will impact your print job. You will need to know how to select appropriate feedstock and optimize it based on the material type. Even the software you choose to turn the printable file into machine code (G-code in industry jargon) can influence the output.  Many printers come with their own software to do this, but you may get different (perhaps better, in some cases) results with the open source replicator G, for instance.  This in itself can be a fun path of discovery.
* Once you are confident in your expertise you can enter the fray by offering your services as part of one of the emerging 3D printing networks.  These are turnkey solutions with support for invoicing and shipping that allow you to list your printer and accept orders from people with designs they want printed.  Currently, the largest such network is 3D Hubs.

Come up with a novel online product/service that leverages 3D printing.  This opportunity requires the most money and creativity, but it also has the highest return potential. Here, you are making an online business where you sell a product revolutionized by 3D printing or some other related service.

* The key to coming up with a valuable service comes back to the freedoms inherent to 3D printing.  For instance, the ability to easily modify designs lends to automated customization of products.  Users can self-create customizations on your website and let 3D printers do the work.  For inspiration, consider examples like the custom 3D figurines of Shapify or the new site for custom shoes called Feetz.
* Once you have crafted a service, develop your website.  Website design has become fairly streamlined and commoditized.  Mainly you will want to focus on the features that uniquely leverage 3D printing.  The output of your website will be ready to print models.
Once your website design is underway, next secure a means to fabricate orders.
* If your website takes off, you will want professional grade equipment costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. While you are building up to that, you can start out by partnering with an existing 3D printing service provider.  These are firms that own banks of professional grade 3D printers and will print objects for you for a fee.  There are many of these around the country; one of the biggest is called Solid Concepts.
* You will want to develop your operational processes so that the path from the process of clients customizing and placing their orders, to that order being turned into a print-ready design, to the design being sent over to the 3D printer or service bureau, to the object being printed, finished, and shipped is as streamlined as possible.  If you are working with a service bureau you will want to make sure to reduce the administrative burden of billing and shipping as much as possible.

Now, bring forth the magic.  Before social media could be invented, the Internet needed hoards of developers for basic websites.  Likewise, 3D printing needs a critical mass of printing capacity, designs to exercise those printers, and hoards of people developing new uses for them.  Working to build that foundation now can put money in your pocket, but more importantly it can set you up to invent, or at least have a front row seat, to the birth of 3D printing disruptions that are sure to come.  This is how the 3D printing revolution will unfold: by more and more tenacious creative people creating businesses around 3D printing. The more people use this technology, the more we will figure out the optimized place for 3D printing in our world. Be early to this shift, because it is coming.

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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