The problem with the low-budget 3D printing industry is primarily the lack of business maturity among the new people and companies that enter the market. They assume that the only way to succeed is to provide services at the lowest possible prices. Meanwhile, it is not only a wrong and non-effective strategy, it is a suicidal rush towards rapid self-destruction.
The success in business – whether be it printing, or any other, consists of a number of independent factors, and the price of the services or products is just one of them. The competence and personality of the leader, the professionalism of activities, the standards of behavior, the quality of work, the deadlines, the handling of complaints – these and many other things constitute a company’s success or failure after the first year of operation.
What aspects are the most important in the case of the 3D printing industry? Here is a list of 10 things that every aspiring entrepreneur should learn sooner or later to be able even to hope for the sustainable development of their company.
1. The skill of 3D model design
Strangely enough, the most important in the 3D printing service is not the printing itself, but the skill of spatial object design. In fact, designing is the most desired skill on the market – 3D printing is now commissioned only by companies which, for various reasons, do not own a 3D printer. Printing is not difficult (it is discussed below) – designing, modifying or improving an existing 3D model – is so. When the companies, which today commission 3D prints, purchase their own devices (and the market is moving gradually towards such a destination), you will continue to have a skill that you can not just buy.
The quality of the commissions is another important issue. The projects you will receive to print will often be defective or improperly prepared. Building models that consist of collections of interconnected, independent surfaces instead of solids, with walls that are too thin and impossible to print, or with open triangles – anyone who deals with 3D printing services knows these issues inside and out. Some companies simply refuse to take orders of this type – others, in addition to 3D printing, expect remuneration for the service of improving the model or designing it from scratch. If the customer ordering the print is under pressure because of deadlines, they might be ready to pay any money for an efficient, fine job.
Finally, the third issue – a lot of people want to commission 3D prints based on 2D drawings, sketches or even photos. Some inquiries are simply ridiculous from the start, but among them there are those that will allow you to earn double – on the design, and the 3D printing.
Therefore, a company that would seriously wish to deal in 3D printing should start with acquiring the 3D design skills. If you can not do it yourselves – consider hiring a designer. If you can not afford to hire one – find a good, effective subcontractor. Without it you will be stuck with just the 3D printing and a struggle for every customer. Usually by means of the price…
2. A good 3D printer
The 3D printer is a tool. Just like a drill, a mower or a jackhammer. It is supposed to perform a specific job. We should not need to think about how to calibrate, align and optimize. We should upload a properly prepared GCode and start printing. After a few hours we should take the finished print and proceed to post-processing.
This is why it is so important to work with a reliable device. Even if it is relatively expensive. Trust me – an expense of several thousand on a good 3D printer is returned within a maximum of two months. If not, it means that this business is not for you.
Is it possible to run a “3D printing shop” with a self-assembled RepRap? Let me put it this way – it is not impossible… However, I can hardly imagine today a company, which starts its operations in late 2015 with one RepRap, and after three months is able to generate a steady monthly income at the level of 10,000 zł. This is a minimum which gives the company a chance for further development and ensures its stability and security.
Good machines are essential. Insist on reliability, functionality and the ease of use. Someone who makes beautiful 3D prints at the expense of long hours needed for calibration of the equipment, will lose money. Because in 3D printing – time is money. Literally.
3. The ability to prepare a project for 3D printing
Most 3D models which need to be printed are really difficult… They have complex geometries, require multiple supports and/or must be printed with a material that has a high shrinkage (like ABS.) You should learn to orient the models in the most optimal way on the 3D printer’s plate and not be afraid to divide them into parts and print as several independent objects (provided the client agreed, of course).
Sometimes, unfortunately, it is better to reject the project rather than spend several hours on consecutive failures, wasting time (your own and your client’s) and kilometers of filament which will need to be trashed.
How can you know all this? With practice… You should print all the time – whether it is your own or commercial 3D printing, and gather experience. Before you start providing services, you should make some really ambitious projects ([Bartosz K1] this, for example), to become more savvy and ready for possible problems with similar projects in the future.
4. A good filament supplier
Cheap filaments are like a cheap 3D printers. They may suffice for 3D printing, except that it can be done faster and better with the more expensive ones. What you save on the cheap filament, you lose trying to set up the 3D printer for its occasionally surprising characteristics. A good filament – is a reliable filament. There are brands which can be always relied on, and, most importantly, behave the same way on (almost) any device.
Once you find the filament which is best for you, it is important to have a good supplier – preferably one who will be able to quickly deliver bigger amounts, maybe 5-10 kg of material overnight, if necessary. A supplier in the same city as you is the ideal situation – in extreme cases you will be able to drive there and not waste an entire day waiting for the courier delivery.
5. Additional skills, for example finishing of 3D models
What the majority of the low-budget 3D printing companies have to offer is to print a 3D model, remove the supports (if they were necessary), pack it and send it to the client. Whereas, what distinguishes the low-cost industry from the professional one is the post-processing, that is finishing the printouts to make them resemble the products made by means of injection molding.
Grinding, sanding, filling, painting, coating with resin etc. All this extra work not only makes you stand out among the others, but opens up the possibilities of receiving much more ambitious and profitable orders.
6. Contacts with customers to start with
Believe me – it is not enough to establish a company, buy a 3D printer, launch a website, send out some mailing (spam) to the prospective customers, invest 500 zł in Google Adwords and… the orders will start pouring in. It is necessary to have some potential customers to start with. For some this may be the hardest stage in the whole process of starting your own business, but… there is no other way. In any service industry – especially in such a niche market as the 3D printing services, you need a regular customer to start with. Someone who would ensure some revenue in the first months of operations.
Without anyone like that, starting a business is not worth the risk… Remember, in order to be able to continue, you will need customers all the time – all year round. If at the beginning you do not have any customers at all, how can you be sure they will come to you later?
7. Good relations with other companies / networking
A good service company has a lot of customers and orders. In fact, sometimes it may experience a so-called „overdemand disaster” – more orders than the company is able to process. In such situations it is good to be able to have recourse to the help of friendly companies – subcontractors. An interesting solution for a start-up company may be to contact them and, colloquially speaking, to make friends. There are many ways to go about it. Starting from active participation in discussions on relevant forums where you can present your own prints and share experiences with other users, through meetings with companies at trade fairs, up to sending your own portfolio and offering potential support in the future.
The more contacts with companies and people in the industry you establish, the greater the chance they may repay with some commission in the future. In the end, it is most important to maintain the best possible relations with competitors, because you never know who might contact you for help.
8. 3D printouts portfolio
As an aspiring business, you will often have to prove that you are able to undertake more ambitious and profitable orders. It is therefore important at the beginning to take some time and print a few really large and complex projects. Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory is full of them – they are large, made up of dozens of elements and impress even the most seasoned printers.
Print, assemble and photograph them. Better yet – do a short photo report on their realization. Publish it on your website, Facebook or… send it to us to show at this website. This is the best way to advertise. You will not only gain exposition to a wide range of people, but you will also be presented as a skillful professional. In the future you will be able to send a link to your projects, in the form of a case study, in your bids and business correspondence with clients.
9. Activity on the Internet, publishing the photos of prints on Thingiverse, creating your own spectacular projects
If you already have your own portfolio of prints, boast of it wherever possible. This is what people value most. It is very helpful for business, so be active on all kinds of forums, websites and professional social networking sites. The more frequently your company’s logo or your name will appear, the faster you will gain recognition and earn a reputation.
There is just one condition – your words published on the internet must be supported by hard evidence of your knowledge and competence. So, prints, prints, prints…
Try to create something unique, something that would be published on 3DPrint.com or the 3D Printing Industry. The customers will not start knocking on your doors right away, but with such a project in your portfolio it will be incomparably easier to obtain more interesting orders than if you just offer the lowest price.
10. The ability to handle difficult customers
This actually applies to all the service industry. Let’s face it, you have a long way to go before Volkswagen, Porsche or Lamborghini employs your services. At the beginning you will realize a lot of projects commissioned by strange people, with poor understanding of 3D printing and its limitations. You will spend many hours replying to hopelessly stupid inquiries, with a majority ending up in nothing. But as a fledgling company you have to reply to every message, because you can not afford to select customers, who are sparse anyway…
Prepare for complaints, reproaches and discontent. Unfortunately, this is the road every novice company has to go. You must learn to accept defeat with humility, to receive returns of failed prints (according to customers), and e-mails with a comment that your offer was rejected because it was the most expensive (even if you quoted really little for the item). When you get through this phase and manage to make a name for yourself, with time you will start to have more interesting clients and much better jobs.
Do not lower your prices – you will not raise them later…