3-D printing and CNC machining are both popular activities for hobbyists, but few know how to turn that hobby into a viable income. It might seem obvious, and you may already be thinking “couldn’t you just sell anime figurines and novelty stuff like that online?”, and that’s exactly where hobbyists fail with a 3D printing and CNC machining business.
Some also think that because they enjoy 3D modeling and printing, they’ll be naturally talented at running a business for it. Again, that leads to failure. Doing something you enjoy as a business is great, but it’s only a very small part of the business. Most of your time will be spent on customer support, accounting, marketing, and growing your business online.
But if you do think you have a mind for business, we’ve put together some helpful tips on how to grow revenue in the 3D printing and CNC machining industry.
First to explain, 3-D printing and CNC machining are technically different things. In the simplest summary, 3D printing creates things, while CNC machining takes away. They’re actually complementary technologies, although people like to compare them. For example, 3D printing can print parts with fine detail, while CNC mills can handle post-processing and refining the object created by the 3D printer. You could even 3D print your own CNC parts to refine an existing CNC machine.
So for hobbyist 3D printing looking to make a small side income, you could get away with perhaps just selling customized coffee mugs and toy parts. But for serious business purposes, getting into both 3D printing and CNC machining is the perfect pair.
The global 3D printing market size was valued at $11.58 billion in 2019, with an expected CAGR of 14%. Likewise, the CNC machine industry is estimated to be worth $117.17 billion by 2027, with a CAGR of 7.3%. In layman’s terms, both of these markets are growing at exponential rates and it’s a great time to jump in.
There are two market focuses for 3D printing and CNC machining as a business. You can focus on niche products, or marketing yourself as a “job shop”.
When focusing on products, you’re basically creating and selling your own products. So for example, you might specialize in 3D printed coffee cups, or CNC engraved faceplates, as simple examples.
If you focus on being a “job shop”, you’ll be taking custom orders, such as allowing customers to upload their own CAD models to your website. Online 3D printing is a popular business model, and companies like 3D Hubs excel at custom 3D printing and CNC machining jobs to order.
Whichever you focus on, know that the business strategy approaches are fairly different. When focusing on products, you’ll be marketing and selling your own product ideas, and you can settle into a niche product category.
When you focus on being a “job shop”, you’ll be marketing your services, which is a commodity that people largely buy on factors such as price, job completion time, etc. But even still, while you won’t be focusing on specific products, it’s beneficial to develop a reputation for being “the best” at certain types of products.
This is because according to Michael Porter (Harvest B-School Professor), the dean of competitive theory, there are three ways to compete in a market:
So when you focus on being a “job shop” that takes custom orders, it’s difficult to be “the best”, because you aren’t actually focused on any specific products. You could however develop a reputation for being the best at certain types of parts, if you’re highly perfectionist and spend a lot of time optimizing and refining details on orders.
While 3D printing and CNC machining can be great markets to tap into, you still need to have a business-mind. It’s kind of like being an artist - you don’t just start painting on canvases, and suddenly people are throwing money at you. How do you plan to get your name out there, market to your target audience, and will you accept custom jobs for commission?
So there’s a lot to figure out before diving in, but the market statistics certainly indicate that 3D printing and CNC machining are viable business models to grow revenue.