Categories
3D Printing Prusa Printers

Why I Choose Prusa 3D Printers For My Printer Farm

Note: I use affiliate links and may receive a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

As of writing this article I have two Prusa MK3 printers and two Prusa MINI+ printers. It’s a small and growing farm that will one day be upwards of 15-20 printers. It was three years ago (2018) that I chose the Prusa brand, bought my first MK3, and haven’t looked back.

Current farm setup. MK3s on top and MINI+ below. It’s a work in progress for sure.

There are a plethora of reviews of Prusa printers online. The vast majority doing a much better job than I could at detailing the pros and cons of owning a Prusa machine. This article will highlight my decision making in choosing Prusa printers and my experience with them (the good and the bad) but is in no way a comprehensive review.

TL; DR: Prusas are the best bang for your buck. They are consistent, reliable, and have saved me hours of tinkering. Print quality is exceptional for the price range and the printers are overall a solid investment for my printer farm. Nearly every single issue I have had with a print was due to bad filament or my ignorance. Prusas aren’t perfect. But they just work when setup correctly. That is why I love them.

Check out Prusa printers on their website

The following are things that are important to consider when building out your printer farm. And ultimately why I chose the 3D printers I did. At the end of the day it’s a numbers game (as all businesses are).

The significant numbers are time and money. How much time and how much money goes into running the farm? How does that translate into value that I can make a profit with?

My Time is Precious

The whole point of the printers is to grow a side business. Something that steadily rakes in the dough once everything is setup and running. I want to spend as little time tinkering, maintaining, or fixing the printers as possible. Prusas are known to be reliable and to date I have had great luck with them.

To be fair, I am type of guy who is better suited to work on spreadsheets and business ideas than to be troubleshooting machines. Someone with more hands-on troubleshooting skills may be able to make less reliable printers work just fine. That is just not a problem I want to have to solve.

Print Quality is Paramount

I’m proud of these prints. They are exceptional and I’ll confidently add them to my Etsy store. They were all printed on Prusa machines.

To be profitable at selling a 3D printed product the model coming off the printer has to be consistent and require little time post-processing in order to save time and effort. That being said, in general 3D printed parts have layer lines and will never be as smooth as an injected molded part. But for 3D printing, the Prusa printers hold your hand and help you avoid all the pitfalls that might make your print uglier then it should.

I’m talking about blobs, burns, shifting layers, stringing, under-extrusion, etc. Especially when used in tandem with the slicer software that Prusa has developed and recommends for their printers, there is little room for error.

Here are some examples of poor quality prints.

Money is Limited

Prusas don’t come out of China. But they also aren’t expensive. I only buy the MK3 kits or the preassembled MINI. Both these options are reasonably priced and worth the investment for the reliability alone.

At $800 for a MK3 kit shipped to the U.S. I get a minimum of 2,500 to 3,000 hours of print time before machine failure. That is between $0.27 and $0.33 per hour of print time. Not bad when you consider the hundreds of hours I save not having to constantly tinker with the machine. With the calculator that I use to price my products on Etsy or for wholesale this depreciation of 2,500 – 3,000 hours is perfect.

The MINI+ printers has an even better ROI proposition at only $450 shipped to the US. The only problem here is that the build plate is only large enough for about 2/3 of my orders. I can’t get away with just MINI+ printers. I need MK3s as well.

There are definitely superior printers on the market but the ROI on them for a printer farm is suspect. From what I can tell, the really expensive printers “consumer” printers in the $1,000+ range are made for one-off hobbyist or prototypers. They aren’t well-suited for a printer farm. Not saying that there aren’t other printers out there that are, but cost-wise the Prusas appear to have them all beat.

The best printer of 2020
I recommend the Prusa MK3 but the MINI is a greater starter machine.

Concerns Over Being Stuck in a Brand Ecosystem

Prusas are built on open source hardware and can work with just about any filament on the market that can be printed under 300 celsius. In other words, you are not locked into proprietary technology when sourcing filament or replacement parts. Everything is thus less expensive and you have more options to choose from.

The Prusa team behind the brand has been incredible with their ability to continually innovate year after year and expand their product offerings and support. With over 300 printers in their printer farm constantly churning out new printer parts they have proven, and continue to prove, their innovation process. They have great support resources with an active forum and even a platform for sharing models. There are thousands of models on their platform. They also have a weekly livestream where they showcase prints, deliver news and updates, and interview interesting people in the 3D printing space. All-in-all they have become a leader in consumer level 3D printers.

The Cons

These are still “consumer” grade printers. Although arguably the best printers in their price range, they lack extra features that another, more pricey printer, might have. For example, they don’t have enclosures and some filaments print best inside a heated chamber or enclosure. They also aren’t the fanciest looking printer. This doesn’t matter for my farm but I have seen some nicer looking printers out there.

One feature that they do have that hasn’t worked very well for me is the filament sensor on the MK3. This has supposedly been upgraded and fixed on the MK3S+ (their latest iteration) but for me the filament sensor would sometimes be unable to identify white filament or semi-transparent filament and stop the print. I ended up disabling the sensor on both my MK3 machines and haven’t had an issue since.

Another issue is that the company is based in Eastern Europe and if I want to purchase their unique flavor of filament or upgrades for my printer (like a new build plate) directly from them then I the shipping costs start to get out of control. It isn’t worth it. This hasn’t been a real issue since I have found filament from third parties that works really well. Also, I have not yet needed a new build plate although I foresee wanting a few extra for convenience in the near future.

They still require getting to know the technology and the hardware. They still require learning software to interface with them. They still require a level of familiarity and comfort with troubleshooting and tinkering. Just much less (from what I have experienced) than other printers. In any case, although I don’t have an affinity for the hardware side 3D printing, it has been a rewarding journey learning how it all works. One that would be required of any printer you buy and not just a Prusa.

Prusa Clones

Due to the hardware being open source there are a lot of clones on the market. They often look like a Prusa printer but have cut corners on build quality to make it less expensive. I haven’t had any experience with these but since I am trying to run a business I would avoid them. I like knowing exactly what I am getting, especially when expecting superior build quality

Conclusion

I realize as I read through the above points I make that I tend to evangelize the Prusa printers a bit. Still, I have had an amazing experience with them and am excited to be purchasing a few more in the upcoming months.

As my farm grows I will continue to update this blog with my experience with Prusa machines and hopefully provide more some helpful content.

Thanks for reading!

The best home 3D printer of 2020
A less expensive way to get started with quality 3D printing – the MINI+.
Categories
Etsy Shop State of the Farm

Etsy Shop Goals and Strategy for 2021

Note: I use affiliate links and may receive a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

As I mentioned in my last post, 2020 Etsy Shop: A Year in Review, two 3D printers were plenty to handle the volume of sales for the year. Even the Christmas/holiday spike in November and December. Yet growing the printer farm is one of my primary goals. I need more 3D printers. That means I need to continue growing the Etsy shop to justify purchasing more printers.

My first two Prusa i3 MK3 printers. I named them Black Mamba and Orange Mamba. Solid workhorse 3D printers.

Goal 1: Purchase 2  Prusa Printers

Prusa recently came out with a smaller, less expensive version of their 3D printer. They call it the “Mini” since it has a smaller build plate at 7″ x 7″ x 7″. Still, it is large enough to handle 75% of my orders. The majority of my Etsy sales are models that are smaller than 6.5 inches. There is significant value for me in this size of a printer. I want to purchase at least one in 2021.

The larger Prusa printers, the MK3 series, are reliable and have proven to be perfect printers to continue building out my farm with. I want to purchase an additional Prusa i3 MK3 in 2021.

You can check out the difference in the printers here on Prusa’s website: http://shop.prusa3d.com.

Purchasing two more printers would bring the farm to four printers total. This allows me to better handle larger orders and better handle the Christmas/holiday gift spike.

This leads me to my next goal – increasing sales on Etsy.

Goal 2: Increase Etsy Shop Sales

My Etsy shop has been in existence for 2 years now and reviewing the sales data shows me that the vast majority of sales occur in November and December. My monthly average for 2020 is exactly 10 sales a month (it was 3 sales per month in 2019 – my first full year).

I would like to increase this to 20 sales a month on average with a manageable holiday sales spike above 100 sales.

This would justify two additional printers at least for the holiday months and would also pay off the cost of purchasing the printers within the year. The more products (with the right tags, descriptions, photos, and videos) on the shop the more chances of driving organic Etsy search traffic.

Strategy / Actions to Accomplish Goals

Product Listings

Increase product listings on the Etsy shop to over 100 products. Currently there are 46 listings. This will take a lot of invested time, effort, and printer filament. Ultimately I believe this is what will drive organic Etsy traffic to the shop.

Social Media Marketing

This one is going to be the most difficult for me. Every blog and video on growing an Etsy shop says that I need to build my social media presence. It isn’t my forte but I get it – it is how I am going to ease into marketing for my shop.

I decided that Instagram is going to be my primary channel. I actually created the Instagram account/profile a long time ago and only recently started adding content to it. The focus is going to be on highlighting the products on the Etsy shop and adding inspiring wilderness photos. Maybe a little behind the scenes of me creating the digital models and working with the printers.

Check out how I am doing so far on Instagram.

Getting better organized

Currently I work out of my garage and am competing for space with cars, bicycles, storage… basically the rest of my life. This year I am going to carve out a corner of the garage and dedicate solely to the printer farm and managing the Etsy shop.

To motivate and inspire myself I plan to renovate the area to optimize it for processing orders and working on the printers. I want to transform it from being a space where everything is to being an inspiring little workshop that motivates me to continuing building.

Update My Etsy Shop Profile

There are a few more things I can do to improve my profile on my shop. Etsy allow you to add a video and images to the “About the Shop” section. I have been dragging my feet on this but am committing to creating a simple 1-2 minute video about the shop and my process of creating the models.

You can check out my progress on JoySpark (my Etsy Shop).

Categories
Etsy Shop State of the Farm

2020 Etsy Shop: A Year in Review

My Etsy shop, JoySpark, finished up its second full year of operation in 2020 with positive growth and revenue. Although the sales numbers are really modest (still in the hobby-business range) the shop definitely grew and outperformed 2019. As it stands there are 196 sales, 30+ five star reviews, and double the favorites of last year (not sure if favorites mean anything… maybe social proof). Here are some screenshots.

Note: There have been fewer than 196 orders but some of those orders contained multiple models. Etsy counts each model sold as a sale.

End of 2020
Total orders in 2020 compared to 2019.

One of the goals is to grow the 3D printer farm and sadly, these numbers don’t yet justify buying a third printer. Two printers handled the entire year just fine. The only pressure was in the first two weeks of December. Those 38 orders in December of 2020 actually happened in the first two weeks of the month. My two printers could barely keep up at 12-15 hours a day.

Printing 3D models takes a lot of time. The average small model I print takes 5 hours. The average large takes 20 hours. So, if I have just 10 orders of large models then it takes at least 5 straight days on two printers. And that doesn’t account for failures or mishaps or me sleeping in. You can see how 38 models in two weeks was difficult.

Improvements to the Shop

Our shop growth has been mostly organic on Etsy (see Etsy offsite ads section below). And although I have been tracking it, I can’t say exactly what causes the traffic. It was probably due to nearly doubling our product listings but I can’t really say. We would add a few products, get a few more sales, receive a review or two… and slowly our store developed an established little presence. Here are a few of the things we worked on.

During 2020 I added nearly 30 new products to the shop. This took significantly more time and effort than I anticipated. But creating the digital model, printing it successfully, taking photos, creating listings, etc. is a lot of work.

We added several ski resort areas in 2020. Here is Powder Mountain (aka PowMow)

We explored a bit with different backgrounds for photos for the listings. Still haven’t figured out the best setup for this.

My wife officially took over all communications with customer inquiries on the shop. We discovered that this takes a ton of time and is very distracting. Now I work on managing the business and product development and she handles nearly all the communications and listings. So far it is a good distribution of tasks.

One thing that I think has helped improve the shop is that we have a goal of responding to all inquiries within a few hours. As well as following up with messages about how the order is progressing as it gets printed and shipped.

Custom Requests

One thing that was recurring throughout the year was custom requests. Potential customers would message and ask about custom sizes, shapes, locations, etc. Some were reasonable and a natural part of our work flow like adding a date. Some were too big for my operation to handle like a request for the entire Sierra Nevada range on a 4 ft by 8ft model (my printers max out at 8 in by 10 in). Others were just super complex and out there like taking the elevation data and transposing it’s inversion on a sphere inside another sphere… or something like that. Regardless, it was really cool to get all the requests and interact with potential customers. Some of the ideas even led to inspiration for new products on the site.

Digital preview of a custom request – Northern Presidentials.

But the truth is all that messaging back and forth took a lot of time. And the majority of custom requests never turned into sales. Often people would message back and forth a bit and even if it seemed to be going well they would inevitably stop responding. Some would pick it back up in a week or a month. Others we would never hear back from.

Even if the custom request turned into a sale the return on the time to communicate and then make a one-off (like a specific date on a mountain) wasn’t always profitable. In fact, I am confident it was only profitable 5% of the time. Why did I do it then? I wanted more sales. I wanted more 5-star reviews. I wanted customers to have a good experience with the shop.

Did it work? I think so. Custom orders became time investments that helped grow the presence of the shop. That being said, I am working out a profitability model and strategy for custom requests to try and make the effort involved a little more favorable to me going forward. Currently we charge a standard $10 custom order fee on top of the price of the product but will likely change this soon.

Etsy Offsite Ads

About the same time as the pandemic hit Etsy began rolling out a new option for offsite ads. It was an optional thing for stores (like mine) that made less than $10,000 in sales a year. Basically, Etsy would take my listings and advertise them across various online channels. If someone clicks through and purchases from my shop within 30 days then Etsy would charge me a 15% fee.

There are several things about this that rubbed me wrong  and there are plenty of arguments about it across the internet but I thought that it couldn’t hurt as an experiment. I naturally expected the increased exposure to drive up traffic and sales. If the sales volume was high enough then the 15% fee wouldn’t hurt as bad.

After about 6 months my wife and I noticed that every time an order came through we were dreading checking if it was due to an Etsy offsite ad. Our sales volume is low and our profit margins are low. If we had to pay a 15% additional fee then our drive to the post office for a single sale wasn’t worth it. In other words, we weren’t making any money on them and we weren’t seeing much of an increase in traffic to our shop. And since most sales were not due to offsite ads we decided to save ourselves the anxiety and turned off the offsite ads option.

Although the goal is to grow the shop beyond $10,000 a year in sales,  I haven’t figured out how to handle the mandatory offsite ads that Etsy imposes on larger shops. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. Granted, if the volume of sales was significantly higher, say 50+ per month, then I could see the 15% fee being less of a burden as everything starts to scale up.

Looking Forward to 2021

2020 was a year of growth for JoySpark. Although modest, it was exciting to see the printer farm standing on its own and justifying its existence. It was also really great to have so much interest in the shop by way of custom requests.

In the next week or so I am going to publish an article on my goals and strategies for 2021. Mainly more of the same but maybe add some social media presence and work on driving some traffic that way.

Categories
State of the Farm

The Product: Mountains, Volcanoes, and Islands

Growing my 3D printer farm requires the printers to be productive and (ideally) profitable. In order to do that I needed a product that I could print, sell, and ultimately use to keep the robots busy. In this post I dive into my current products, why I chose the ones I did, and how I feel about them from a business and product development perspective.

This is the second post of my JoySpark 3D journey. Check out my first post here. Or for a quick summary and goals read more on my About page.

Cart Before the Horse?

Since the beginning of my fascination with 3D printing, I wanted to create a viable business that significantly relied on a 3D printer farm for the bulk of manufacturing. So I bought two printers and started exploring. Although this enabled me to experiment with and get to know the printers, they weren’t very productive for a long time. Most of the time they sat silent, making me feel silly for purchasing them without a solid plan for productivity. 

You see, I knew next to nothing about 3D modeling or CAD software. And since the bulk of my work experience is in software development, I had zero knowledge about product development in general. And to print a product to sell… you kind of have to know how to make something in a 3D modeling software.

Looking back on this I probably should have worked out my business strategy prior to investing. But 3D printing had caught my attention and I wanted to just dive in and see what happened. 

So, this is what happened.

Mountains, Volcanoes, and Islands

I LOVE maps. So much data packed into such a simple format. If I could, I would be a historic cartographer, join a guild, and travel the world making maps. 

After a lot of brainstorming and reviewing what others were doing (or at least suggesting to do) I stumbled across the idea of 3D printed terrains. And that resonated with me. My first attempt was of Mount Timpanogos in Utah County, Utah. Standing at over 11,000 ft, it was the tallest mountain I had summited (still is). And after many painstaking hours of trial and error with finding source data, trying out different modeling softwares, figuring out slicer settings, etc. I finally printed a successful model of Mount Timp. After so much work, it was beautiful. And I decided I was going to create an Etsy Shop and list it as my first product. 

JoySpark Etsy Shop – https://www.etsy.com/shop/JoySpark

Mount Timpanogos 3D printed model
Mt first product on Etsy. A simple 3D printed model of Mount Timpanogos.

Note: The current model of Mount Timp on the Etsy store is a reworked model for better scale and detail. It also has text around the base with name and height. My initial models didn’t have any of that.

Ever since then I have made these 3D printed terrains the focus of my shop. With just over 40 models on the shop so far, it has proven potential as a product for the long-term success of the farm. 

Product Development & What I’ve Learned So Far

Ultimately, a product is only as good as it has value to others (is marketable) and is profitable (able to be priced to cover time and materials), right? So, this is the breakdown of that intersect for me and these model terrains. 

Value to Others

After I printed Mt Timp and a few other models such as the Grand Canyon and Mt St Helens, it quickly became apparent that people I showed them to really enjoyed them. Of course I showed them to friends and family, but I also had a few interactions with some Etsy customers, and the anecdotal evidence supporting their appeal became sound in my mind. I didn’t exactly have a target market yet, but I knew that people generally got excited about the models. Especially if they had memories or experiences with the locations. 

People who knew the area loved being able to see where they had been in a small 3D model. They recognized the unique features of the locations and remembered the adventures they had (and really liked to talk about them). The model became a prop in the show-and-tell and an artifact that connected their stories to their experience. And not just the hikers, skiers, mountain bikers, or general outdoors group of people, those who lived near these locations and had attachments to the geologic features on their horizon liked the models as well.

For example, I had a custom order for the Wellsvilles mountain range. This is a fairly unknown mountain range outside of Cache Valley, UT. There is nothing really significant about it except that it forms the Western wall for a large portion of the valley. And as such, it has found its way into many of the residents hearts as a symbol of home. 

The Wellsvilles mountain range. 3D Printed model.
The Wellsvilles mountain range

After these experiences and several others, I decided that I could move forward, confident that I could find that target market. Seeing the joy in someone’s face as they explored a printed model of a familiar place was also encouraging. 

Profitability with 3D Printing

Since I am not a great designer or maker and originally didn’t have much experience with working the 3D printers, I was grateful to find a product that wasn’t very complex. That being said, 3D printing is a painstakingly slow process. Even slower than I had realized when I first dived in. This is probably the largest con to the process of additive manufacturing with the style of printers I have. They are just slow. And that time on the printer costs money in wear and tear, electricity, and management.

Some benefits of choosing terrain models that keep the costs of development and manufacturing low are as follows:

  1. Time required to model the products is minimal because I can use open topographical map data. This eliminates the need for serious artistic creativity in recreating a model from scratch. The data does the heavy lifting and I just choose how to present it. Currently it takes about 3 hours for me to create a model from raw data to finished file ready to be printed. 
  2. The models don’t require support material when printing. This eliminates a whole slew of potential issues and post-processing time.
  3. No moving parts or assembly means that post-processing of the models after printing only takes a few minutes.

To figure out the costs associated with printing the models I created a cost calculator in Google Sheets that takes into account 

  1. Printer depreciation (estimating 2,500 hours of print time)
  2. Electricity use
  3. Pre-processing and post-processing time
  4. Cost of material
  5. 10% fail rate

Note 1: Fail rate is a nice buffer, but thankfully fail rate has been less than 10%.

Note 2: Cost of materials is surprisingly minimal. Not insignificant, but not as high as I originally expected. Time is the most significant factor of the cost.

3D Print cost calculator screenshot.
This is the actual cost of Mt Timp with 73 grams of PRO PLA filament and 5 hrs and 33 minutes of print time.

Pricing

It was fuzzy then, and it is fuzzy now. I really have no idea how to price my models. I know the minimum amount required to make them profitable, but I am uncertain as to how much I ought to charge in order to make them worthwhile. The difference being that it has to support the growth of the business (product research, development, and adding more printers to the Farm) while also paying me at least minimum wage for the time I put into this. 

Here is where I originally landed. I have 3 general size options for each product – SM (4.5 in base), MD (6 in base), and LG (8 in base). Some models vary from this but most follow this pattern. 

Size – Price – Manu cost
SM – $16.00 – $4-$7
MD – $24.00 – $9-$12
LG – $32.00 – $13-$16

As you can see, the manufacturing cost is between 1/3 and 1/2 the price I was setting on the models. Once you factor in Etsy fees, time to package and ship, and other miscellaneous time spent working on an order, then the margin quickly falls. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was barely breaking even at this point. But that level of granularity still needs studied.

I am still working on this. My current target is a profit margin of 50% on each model (this would include all costs associated with selling and processing an order as well as manufacturing costs).

Note: Selling a model for double what all the costs of manufacturing and processing equates to 50% margin.

If I can arrive there then hopefully this will be successful. I will continue to study this and make some growth projections in a later post.

Conclusion

As reviewed above, a 3D printed topographical model shows promise as a product to grow a printer farm with. There is a target market that sees value in the models and the complexity of development and manufacturing is low. This is fortunate for me and lines up with my plan to develop a viable business model supported by a growing a 3D printer farm.

Categories
State of the Farm

The Big Experiment: Growing a 3D Printing Hobby Into a Full-time Business

Two years ago I fell in love with the idea of 3D printing. After binge watching 3D printing YouTube channels for a few weeks I purchased two Prusa i3 MK3 3D printer kits. And the journey began (sort of).

Welcome to the JoySpark 3D journey. This is my first post and, consequently, I’m going to lay out my purpose, my goals, and where I am at right now (May 17th, 2020).

Who am I? What’s my goal?

I’m a maker/entrepreneur with the goal of growing a 3D printer farm out of my garage. I mean, who doesn’t want an army of robots that makes them tons of money all at the click of a few buttons? Seriously though, going from hobby printer who enjoys printing miniatures to having an agile manufacturing operation with significant capability to design, prototype, produce and deliver for serious clients would be pretty awesome. I want to explore that possibility.

In other words, to have an income stream based on the capability of the 3D printers and to prove a small-scale manufacturing model. Oh, and to grow my printer farm to fill my garage (because obviously).

But is it possible? This is what I want to find out. And if at the end of it all I have a collection of articles on what not to do then that’s ok. However, the goal is to build a sustainable business based on small-scale manufacturing and provide content for like-minded hobby entrepreneurs looking to become full-time professionals.

Where am I at?

Two years ago I jumped into this with big dreams. Then I switched jobs, got busy and distracted with my other business (happydeveloperlabs.com), and allowed the 3D printing to run on auto-pilot. A few weeks ago I finally picked it back up with renewed focus and drive. 

I sell 3D printed model mountains on Etsy (I’ll devote another post as to why mountains). The Etsy shop was super easy to start, and I have various mountains listed. It is fairly low-risk, mainly requiring a lot of time to make and photograph products. Of course, when I started it I had no idea if anyone would be interested.

3D Printed Model - Antelope Island
This is a recent model I did of Antelope Island. Probably my favorite to date.

Here is my JoySpark Etsy shop: https://www.etsy.com/shop/JoySpark

Today I have 74 sales, 10 reviews and been favorited by 34 individuals.

My plan is to post a monthly “Status of the shop” Etsy update on this blog.

Aside from the Etsy shop I have had a few orders from MakeXYZ (I don’t recommend this route – perhaps I will write a future post on it). I have also done some work modeling and printing cookie cutters for a local business. 

Then, of course, there are the one-off print jobs for family and friends. This is fun but really only covers the cost of materials.

As you can see, not much by way of a start. It is time to get to work and see where I can take this. Today I started this site and blog. Tomorrow I will ship off an Etsy order and print a custom request for a friend. Then later this week I’ll post another update.

Why am I starting a blog?

Let’s be clear, it’s not to sell you a course or a subscription. 

I don’t consider myself as being successful—yet. I have ideas, drive, a little bit of traction, and lots of goals. But I’m not there. I can’t write about how I’ve “made $1,000 a month selling on Etsy” or earned passive income while I’ve slept. The internet is full of bloggers selling people on these ideas based on their own supposed success stories. 

This blog is about the journey.