How much for that 3D-printed doggie in the window?

As more and more people are getting 3D printers in their homes, I’m seeing more and more people also wanting to start a business based around their new 3D printer. I’m also seeing that most of them aren’t yet thinking creatively about the concept.

The first place folks seem to be going to is one where customers are going to want the stretchy bracelets, the tiny squirrels, and the Yoda heads that 3D printer owners love printing. This, to some extent, is true; kids love these things and will certainly get the parents in a store (or a booth at a local craft/art fair). But these are not the big-ticket items that are going to keep a business open (the small versions really should be 25¢ to $1.00 at most; you know – prices kids can afford).

Then, there’s an assumption that they can charge a lot of money for some of these pieces when printed larger. This probably stems from seeing gear hearts on sale at the new Makerbot Store in NYC for several hundred dollars, even though you can already get really nice ones on etsy for $10 – $30.

Finally, the place where I see people’s eyes lighting up: adults are going to want to bring files of things they’ve designed, or want to work with someone on making a custom widget, and have them 3D printed.

I think these ideas are each valid in some way, but not things to start a business around; I think there’s opportunity for something more.

Yeah? Like what?

At this point in at-home 3D printing history, the people who are genuinely interested in, and have the aptitude for designing and printing their own 3D objects, either have a 3D printer of their own or a friend with one; know about and use large, online services like Shapeways; work in a place that has a 3D printer they have access to; or are saving up and are going to buy their own 3D printer.

Unless you are opening a Kinkos-sized service bureau with really high-end 3D printers that can do better prints than what you can at home, these people are not going to be your customers. And that’s okay.

I think one entry point, one way to appeal to the masses, is not to try to sell generic trinkets to them (at least not ones you, yourself, did not design), nor try to get them to design their own items from scratch. Instead, it is the personalized customization of useful things that will get you a market, and keep you in business.

Here’s the Thing

Let’s take a hypothetical example of one, potentially useful, customizable thing: cabinet door knobs/pulls. Generic, spherical knobs will run you about $1 each at a big-box store. While you could print these sorts of knobs, and sell them 2 for $1 to undercut the stores, it’s the next step up that it starts to get interesting. You can buy a cabinet door knob in the shape of a daisy for $4 at a big-box store, and one with a dog’s head run about $17 for a metal one. There is now market expectation of paying a higher fee for getting something fun and special for a kid’s dresser, or for the pantry closet where the pet food is kept.

Rendering of a flower cabinet door knob

Imagine you could 3D print daisy flower knobs in an assortment of colors–perhaps even dual colored with the right 3D printer–and sell them for $1 each, 1/4 of the big-box store price. There are 10 knobs on the generic IKEA dresser I have, so $10 for some cute knobs. That’s not a bad price, as it would be $40 regularly. Do that four times and you’ve paid for your roll of filament, of which these would use only a small fraction of. Double your price to $2 each, $20 for 10, and now you’re starting to pay for the filament as well as your time, electricity, etc.

Now imagine you have more than just daisies. Roses, poppies, petunias, sunflowers, lilies, and so on; very simple designs that all use a standard base. And you have 10 different colors of PLA filament. And you also know how to dip your door knobs into metallic paint, or that liquid rubber coating in a can, or brushing them with various leafings (gold, bronze, etc).

Now, imagine that you also have a Kinect “photo booth” set up in the corner of your store where a person can get their face scanned (or their kid’s face) and put onto a door knob. And you only charge $6 each, or 2 for $10. Can they even do that at a big-box store? No, no they can’t.

Now, imagine that they do this and then you say “not only can you get your kid’s face on door knobs, but we also have toothbrush holders, light-switch covers, ceiling fan chain pulls, and 10 more things you can put it on”. Sold. I’ve seen how people love putting their kids’ pictures on all manner of items — there is, and never will be, a shortage of loving parents who do this sort of thing.

These are things that people can’t get anywhere else, are specific to the customer which makes them feel special, and they create value in what the business owner does.

Cabinet door knobs. Really?

I know that it sounds like I’m suggesting creating a business around a really boring item. What I’m actually trying to get at is that if people start thinking creatively about mundane things, they will find areas that no one has ever been able to find before. Plastic cabinet knobs have been around for decades, but never have people been able to create their own custom knobs as quickly and easily as today. Yes, you could have sculpted a base model, made a silicone mold, and cast resin knobs, but that process takes many hours (perhaps days for things to cure), while scanning a person’s face, cleaning it up, and 3D printing it on a knob in a fraction of the time. (I’d posit that you could still cast items using a 3D print from a scanned item if you wanted)

As I alluded to earlier, I know that plastic filament is not the only expense of 3D printing. There’s also time to print, electricity, time to design, your time, maintenance, and so on. However, part of this is, really, a one-time expense — design a base that has a screw hole that fits common door knob screws, and put 20 different things on top.

Then, get a process down of how to scan someone’s face and put it on that base. Create a “plate” that has 10 knobs on it so you can print 10 at a time, or learn how to use software “multiply” options to do it automatically. Get a flow for taking finished prints and cleaning them up and getting them into cheap zip-lock bags; perhaps use fancy bags with an inkjet printed label if you want. Or display a bunch of them in plastic bins you can get a dollar store.

Finally, try to get these small items into the hands of potential customers. Set up a booth at a local craft/art fair, or maybe talk to any local “quirky” home furnishing stores and see if they’ll sell your items. These are things that want to be touched, and when folks learn they are 3D printed (again, the ones that have never heard of such a thing) there will be an immediate interest AND they see how it fits into their life (unlike a Yoda head).

3D printed door knob on cabinet door

I think there can be creativity in mundane. There are myriad household items that can be redesigned, customized, made better, 3D printed, tested, and in people’s hands with unprecedented speed. Starting there can lead to bigger and better things, and perhaps grow into a business with more longevity.

You can find my example door knob on Thingiverse.

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