3D Printing for Fun and Education (And Profit?) - Part 3 - Show me the Money!


"I want to know about making money with 3D printing, and you show me a picture of a lamp?"
                                                                                                    - My Reader... probably

Yes, a lamp.

Okay, look. There are more things we have to discuss about 3D printing, but I've teased you with the idea of profit long enough. It's time to get to it. There are some things you need to know first before you run out and buy a 3D printer, so sit tight and keep reading.

First, take a moment to visit Etsy or Ebay and search for "3D Printed." Go ahead. I'll wait.... Back now? Good, let's keep going. There are tons of things for sale on the internet on platforms like Etsy and Ebay that are 3D printed. You could get in on that action too. Obviously there is a market there, and it's relatively easy and inexpensive to get started. Don't yet. Keep reading.

I can tell you're excited about selling plastic trinkets online for money, but let's keep that excitement tempered. Keep in mind that we have something called Copyright Law, and yes, it still applies to the internet. Remember Napster? Kazaa? Limewire? Nobody (that I knew anyway) realized there was anything wrong with them, until they were in trouble. Before you shell out for a 3D printer with profit in mind, you need to take a moment and think about exactly what you're going to sell. I'm not a lawyer, I don't play one on TV, and I did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night (unless by some chance, I did... but that still doesn't qualify me to give legal advise regardless of what their commercials try to say.) That being said, I would definitely advise you to make sure you are selling things of your own design. I'll get back to this a bit later.

This year I ran across an idea that I turned into a fund raiser for my STEM lab at work. See that lamp picture at the top of the page? That's an example of what I do. We purchase the lamps and bulbs, and 3D print custom lithophane lamp shades for our customers. We have printed word jumbles like the one above, wedding pictures, children's pictures, anniversary, grandparents, grandchildren, buildings, business logos... I even printed a lamp shade with pictures of dogs on it.

How does it work? Well, the lamp shade is a lithophane. A lithophane is a thin piece of artwork that is meant to be backlit. When you put a light behind the lithophane, the image shows. The thinner that part of the image, the brighter it appears. The image is not printed on the lamp shade like a picture printed on paper, it is embedded in the lamp shade. You can feel the contours of the image. This is one of those things people have a difficult time wrapping their heads around, until they actually see one in person. It is difficult to describe, but every person that has purchased one has been blown away by it.

We need to go back to the copyright thing. I COULD literally print any picture on a lamp shade and sell it as a part of this fundraiser, but I won't. There are things I will not use. I won't print lamps with sports team logos on it. Want a lamp with an Atlanta Falcons logo on it? Sorry. I'm not going to do that. Also, unless you can show me that you purchased the rights to use your child's yearbook picture from the photography company, I won't use those either. This brings us back around to one of the biggest things to keep in mind if you want to try to make a go at 3D printing for profit. In today's digital society, it is very easy to get your hands on exact digital representations of copyrighted materials. That does not mean it is legal for you to print and sell Mickey Mouse pencil holders. If you take to the internet and try to sell those, I think the Disney Corporation may have something to say to you. Create your own thing. Make something useful. Make something silly. Make something beautiful... but YOU make something. Don't go trying to sell someone else's intellectual property.

Finally, keep a realistic point of view. Consumer 3D printers have gotten inexpensive enough that I have had a few students get one for a gift. With quality going up on the lower tier printers, there are many other people getting into the 3D printing game. They may also be thinking about trying to sell 3D printed cookie cutters on Etsy. Keep your excitement tempered by the idea that you need something unique to catch people's eyes. Also remember that unique does not last that long in the world today. As soon as you are making money with your unique idea, rest assured someone else will come along to copy it... or at least create something like it.

Good luck if you decide to get into 3D printing to try to sell items. Let me know what kinds of things you are offering. There are plenty of things out there that solve a particular problem that are not available any other way.

Take the time every day to make the world a better place.

By the way, our STEM department lithophane lamps are $30. If you're interested, leave a comment. I'll get back to you.

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