The buzz about 3D printing and the maker movement is as loud as the ringing in your ears after a Motörhead concert (or, for you younger music fans, Foo Fighters).
Cutting through the noise, Tech Crunch joked about 3D Printers selling out to the man. PCmag.com took a look at 10 printing projects that you can actually use. Forbes reported about the legal implications of 3D printing. And Fast Company explained how a mind-controlled 3D printer generates creatures from children’s brainwaves. Whaaat?!
Now consumers can manufacture their own products through 3D-printing services or with their own consumer printers. Next thing you know, you’ll find your grandmother in the garage setting up her own 3D-printing business of doilies and knickknacks.
But hold on a second: Let’s take a breath before we get too ahead of ourselves. Consumer 3D printing is still in its infancy. As Autodesk CEO Carl Bass mentions in his interview with Fox Business, there are still some hurdles to get over. The quality and speed are still not up to par with low-cost 3D printers, and it’s still expensive to print.
That doesn’t mean it’s too early to get in the game, though. If you’re anxious to start making and selling your 3D-printed wares, there are a few things you should know. And who better to learn from than an expert in the trenches? Andy Taylor is an entrepreneur, maker, former marketing manager at TechShop, founder of the Wolf+Bear Workshop, and Community Manager for the Consumer Products team at Autodesk. His Instructables tutorial on creating an indestructible washing machine knob using 123D Design is quite useful. And his sustainably made bears are one of a kind.
Here, Taylor gives seven tips for makers who are ready to turn their product ideas into a tangible reality.
1. Learn the Lingo
“I think the biggest learning curve for 3D design is the vernacular and developing the ability to pre-plan,” he says. “Terms like ‘extrude’ & ‘loft’ are staples in the fabrication world but can be confusing to people who don’t have that background. Once you have a handle on those design features and how they relate to real objects we use every day, the potential for innovation opens up.”
2. Get the Training
“MakerBot’s Thingiverse community is pretty great about the education aspect of their products. Shapeways has been working with an organization called Skillshare to put on classes in New York to familiarize people with the process. But really, the beauty of 3D printing right now is that people are doing it at their kitchen table and uploading videos to YouTube. Users are proud of the things they’re doing and are pretty eager to help others.
3. Understand the Limitations
“Consumer-level printers are getting better features and filament types, but knowing the limits of a printer before you start designing is pretty crucial to success. I’ve wasted hours on a print to finally realize my printer was physically unable to do what I was asking of it. I actually had to print the model in two sections and glue them together later.”
4. Products: Niche or for the Masses?
“I suppose Wolf&Bear is pretty niche—heavy metal bears and motorcycles. I know people who are entrepreneurs by nature and like the process of starting businesses; product is irrelevant. They might say, ‘Go for the sure thing.’ But I like the idea of doing one thing well. Being ‘the guy for [fill in the blank]’ is a nice position. If sales lull, make t-shirts to supplement sales. People always want t-shirts. And tote bags.”
5. Learn to Delegate
“For Wolf&Bear, I wore all the hats: I was the marketing department, tech, PR, finance, research and development, branding, and sales. But at a certain point I had to be willing to let go of things that someone else could do better for the sake of growing the business. Last year, I made the decision that there was someone else who could sew faster and make a better pattern than I could, so I hired her. I had to get over the idea that if I didn’t make every product, it was still ‘mine.’ That allowed me some time to focus on a rebrand and relaunch our website.”
6. Consider: Quality Versus Quality
“Ethics and authenticity are capital. You can save money by importing or outsourcing, but you risk getting lost in a sea of ‘Made in China.’ There’s a story that you can tell with materials today. Early on, I had zero sales at a couple of pop-up shops when the guy next to me was selling out of recycled socks stuffed with polyester filling for $10. It was hard to stick to my guns with materials, but wool and bamboo were part of the reason I started making the bears in the first place. To use the cheap stuff would fly in the face of what I wanted the bears to be. I ended up finding U.S. suppliers for everything and brought costs down, but I’ve accepted the fact that with my manufacturing process, there will be certain price points and margins with which I can’t compete. And that’s okay, because my bears ride motorcycles.”
7. Production: Set Realistic Expectations
“Sometimes it takes a giant debacle to get a sense of manufacturing realities. But hopefully, one has the horse sense to research how their product scales. Making five to 10 widgets is easy, but making 500 to 1,000 can raise base costs exponentially. I know a new company that raised $150K-plus on a Kickstarter campaign. It seems like a lot of money, but nearly every penny is going into production of the kits they promised. They priced the kits and rewards as if they were making them in their living room. But after they realized they had to hire six people to help manufacture, the margin got pretty slim. I think they fulfilled all their orders, but they still aren’t buying groceries with the business they started. It’s not sustainable.”
Are you designing and selling your own products? What advice would you give to makers just starting out?