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How to Find Your Niche in the 3-D Printing Business

Sept. 13, 2017
Small Business, Starting a Business
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No matter how many times you see a 3-D printer in operation, it’s a sight to behold. They make for great YouTube videos, no doubt.

Starting a 3-D printing business? There’s a steeper learning curve than in some other businesses.

“With a 3-D printing business, not only do you have to run the business, you have to learn the technology,” says Liza Wallach Kloski, co-founder and president of HoneyPoint3D, based in Concord, California.

At roughly $13.2 billion in 2016, the worldwide market in 3-D printing products and services is small but growing, according to IDC Research Inc., a market research firm. The sophistication and capabilities of the technology have increased since its infancy in the 1990s. People and companies are printing a seemingly endless array of products in materials such as plastic, metal, concrete and even food. Meanwhile, many consumer 3-D printers cost less than $1,000.

Most 3-D printing businesses fall into five categories, and many offer more than one service. As you craft your entry into the industry, consider which would be right for you.

1. Service bureaus

These 3-D printing businesses own or lease printing equipment and offer printing as a service to their customers. They compete on the efficiency with which they turn around orders, the variety of materials they print with and the quality and sophistication of designs they can print. Sculpteo, a French company, is a big player here.

It’s a crowded, competitive field, and it can be hard to differentiate your company. One way, Wallach Kloski suggests, is starting a service bureau that serves a niche clientele. For example, she says, no big service bureaus currently serve schools.

2. File creation

Some 3-D printing businesses combine engineering and design know-how with computer-aided design tools to turn their clients’ back-of-envelope ideas into 3-D-printable files.

Business that create 3-D-printable files compete on their brainpower and expertise. Even if you’re designing simple objects, you need to have a design background and be versed in CAD software, Wallach Kloski says.

3. Equipment or software makers

Some of these companies make printers, which can range from small consumer models to those used in industrial settings for prototyping or mass production. As with any manufacturing, these 3-D printing businesses have high fixed costs, meaning business owners must invest large amounts of capital before the first machine rolls off the line. Most proprietors also have a background in manufacturing, engineering or a related discipline, like the founders of Desktop Metal of Burlington, Massachusetts, which recently secured $115 million in venture funding.

Similarly, no one just wakes up one morning and starts a CAD software company. That typically requires some experience at a company that makes design software.

4. Supplying or supporting the industry

These 3-D printing businesses provide supplies, materials and equipment to the people and companies doing printing. This includes businesses that sell the printing equipment to end users and other businesses that supply filament, the spools of plastic that are a raw material for 3-D printing.

Then there are services such as maintenance, repairs and education. HoneyPoint3D, for example, offers online courses in design and printing.

5. Selling finished products

These 3-D printing businesses sell products that can be made only with a 3-D printer. Perhaps fast turnaround is important to the customer, or a degree of customization that would make mass production unfeasible.

For example, Barcelona-based Crayon Creatures uses children’s drawings to produce a three-dimensional version. In 2014, Hasbro partnered with 3-D printing company Shapeways to produce customized My Little Pony toys on demand from the designs of adult fans known as “bronies.”

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