How to Make Money with 3D Printing

Manufacturing is an industry with high barriers to entry – or at least it was until the invention of 3D printing. Nowadays, anyone with a few hundred dollars to spend on a device the size of a shoe box can begin manufacturing spare parts.

3D printing has taken off in recent years, with many small businesses producing niche goods that would have otherwise never existed. With a traditional factory, there needs to be sizable demand to build a new product. However, when it comes to 3D printing, a whole business can be built from one-off designs.

While the competition in the space is increasing, it's still possible for newcomers to get in on the action. The technology is deceptively simple; in reality, it takes dedication to master. Yet this is unlikely to deter people in love with the creativity and elegance involved in this novel manufacturing method.

What Is 3D Printing?

This groundbreaking technology, also called additive manufacturing (AM), has changed how people make physical products. Traditional manufacturing methods like cutting and molding are both subtractive, meaning the thing is produced by removing the excess material. 3D printing, which builds up objects in layers, creates less waste.

In order to begin 3D printing, it's necessary to have a 3D design. The user can model these in software like AutoCAD or Blender, or they can purchase them online. For those serious about getting into 3D printing as a business, it's probably best to embrace both the design and manufacturing sides of the process.

How Do You Begin 3D Printing?

The costs of getting into 3D printing vary greatly depending on the aims. Buying a hobbyist 3D printer for as cheap as $100 is now possible at the lower end of the market. High-end consumer printers can run as high as $20,000. Industrial 3D printers can reach $100,000. For people beginning a small business on the side, a few printers in the $500 to $3,000 range should be enough to get started.

Katie Snediker, founder and CEO of the 3D printing company Jett 3D, advises not to “overspend on equipment until you know you can fully utilize it.”

Regarding software, 3D printing requires both computer-aided design (CAD) software and separate programs for converting the 3D models into data recognizable by the printer. Much of this is either cheap or free. Popular CAD software includes AutoCAD, TinkerCAD, or Blender, while popular preparation – or slicing – software includes PrusaSlicer or Cura. There are also material costs in purchasing the inputs. In some cases, there is the additional expense of setting up a washing or curing station to put the finishing touches on products.

In terms of the workflow, some prints may take under half an hour, while others can take over half a day. The desired result is never guaranteed. Prints may fail – and even when they're almost done. These tools take time to learn. Familiarizing oneself with the technology as a hobbyist, then slowly ramping up as a small business, probably makes sense in most cases.

Types of 3D Printing Services

The universe of additive manufacturing continues to expand. As technology improves over the coming years, more use cases and ways of earning a living from 3D printing will surely pop up. Here are some of the most popular avenues at the moment.

Selling Files of 3D Models

If someone enjoys designing in 3D space, there is a thriving market for ready-to-print models. These can range from spare parts to household items, toys, or jewelry. Major marketplaces like Cults3D, MyMiniFactory, or CGTrader will take a percentage of sales, but if a designer gains a foothold, it could lead to a nice stream of passive income.

Product Modeling

Companies and individuals developing new products hire 3D modelers and printers to bring them to life. If someone is getting into 3D printing, adding a sideline in prototyping won't hurt, as on-demand services have no sunk cost in terms of time.

Selling 3D Printed Objects

There is a vast trade in objects made with 3D printers. Most of it is online, but selling items in brick-and-mortar stores through a distributor or at crafts fairs or conventions is possible too.

Justin Haines, who runs the 3D printing company Haines Additive Manufacturing, recommends three strategies to find a profitable niche: 

“1.) Identify trends in the one-off prints customers commission from you and learn more about them. 2.) Review Google search data and trends for segments where people seek high customizations. 3.) Check Etsy. Selling on Etsy can be a nightmare race to the bottom, but there's a reason those products are popular with so much competition: they represent niches with demand.”

Some of the most popular categories of 3D-printed objects include the following:

Toys: The artisanal toy market has entered a new phase, with things like 3D-printed ADHD fidget toys for adults and model buggy cars for kids all over Etsy. Designing objects like these and then printing them on demand is one approach.

Jewelry: 3D printing is impacting the jewelry industry, with jewelers now using printers to customize their wares. 

“When my clients validate a 3D design from the rendering views,” says jeweler Nicolas Tranchant, founder of Vivalatina Shop, “I am able to make it perfectly identical thanks to the 3D printing process.”

Kitchenware and office supplies: Many of the goods that people tend to buy from big box stores like Walmart and Staples have homemade alternatives in online marketplaces like Etsy or Shopify. Simple products like cutting boards with a creative twist, or pencil sharpeners with a novel design, can sometimes take off.

Spare parts: One of the key use cases for 3D printing is to replace broken components. Often these parts are no longer available from the original manufacturer, and a 3D-printed part can save the whole item from the junk heap.

Renting Out 3D Printers

If someone owns a 3D printer not in use, there may be someone out there willing to rent it. While not the most profitable 3D-printing niche, it's helpful to be aware that small extra income can be earned by renting out printers on platforms like FatLlama.


Many companies would like to integrate 3D printing into their operations but don’t know if it's the right fit for them. A consultant role has emerged to help make these assessments. Snediker, whose company Jett 3D offers consulting services, noticed an opening:

“There was a subgroup of professionals interested in 3D printing who didn't know how to begin the process. Our idea was to be a consultation-focused additive manufacturing company that worked primarily with other companies that needed engineering parts.”

She emphasizes that it's still early days in the industry: “I think there is a ton of opportunity for small businesses that want to take a more hands-on approach to AM. There are so many uses for the technology that most people are unaware of.”