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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- The models don’t require support material when printing. This eliminates a whole slew of potential issues and post-processing time.
- 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
- Printer depreciation (estimating 2,500 hours of print time)
- Electricity use
- Pre-processing and post-processing time
- Cost of material
- 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.
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.
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.