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Grow Your Business Technology

How to Start an Online Retail Company With 3D Printers

How to Start an Online Retail Company With 3D Printers
Credit: Dragon Images/Shutterstock

Consumer-grade 3D printers have dramatically lowered the barrier to low-volume manufacturing, allowing would-be online retailers to print models and decorative pieces right in their own home. For just a little bit of startup capital, creating an online retail business – whether in art, modeling, or jewelry – is just a few prints away.

Business News Daily spoke with some 3D print-enabled store owners about how they made their ventures successful. Here are key pieces of advice, tips and tricks from experts who have lived it firsthand to help make your shop a resounding success. [Looking for a 3D printer that won't break the bank? Check out these great printers for under $1,600.]

Once you've acquired a quality 3D printer, you're ready to start printing. Platforms like Etsy, Amazon or Facebook Marketplace offer great ways to sell your 3D printed wares.

"These platforms and 3D printers really allow an artisan … to quickly bring an idea forward, and with a community like Etsy, for example, you have people who will give you the right feedback," said Robeco Clarete, co-founder of Mgear.io. "A low-cost 3D printer … allows you to validate … the idea [with] a product on hand that you can pass on to friends and family to try out before you launch it."

However, before you're ready to pump out models and start selling to the marketplace at large, there are a few major things to be aware of.

When you're looking to sell at scale, it's important to consider how much time it will take to print your products. If you bite off more than you can chew, you could end up with a large backlog of work and a lot of dissatisfied customers. Enough negative reviews could mean the end of your shop before you really get going.

"Consider the time it takes to print more so than the cost of materials when determining price," said Alex Kaufman, owner of the Etsy shop Name That Cookie. "Printing time will be your biggest bottleneck when it comes to manufacturing."

It's wise to start small and slowly scale up, even purchasing more printers when the time comes if necessary. It's always better to crawl, then walk, then run, rather than get in over your head right out of the gate.

3D printers can use different filaments, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. Understanding what printing style creates the best iteration of your product is a key aspect of launching a successful shop. Kaufman, for example, creates his cookie templates with ABS filament and requires that the final product is truly flat and level to work properly. Philipe Holthuizen, owner of the ecommerce site FUSEDfootwear.com, on the other hand, prints exclusively with TPE in 0.5mm height with a 1mm nozzle.

"Personally, I believe it's okay if a 3D printed product is printed a bit rough. It adds to the story of the product," Holthuizen said. "Printing a shoe still takes between 10 and 15 hours to get the quality I want. So, if the product takes off, I will be exploring ways to speed up my prints."

"If you are having printing problems, the first things to try are slower speed and higher temperature," Holthuizen added.

Your designs are crucial to the final product quality and the time it takes to print. You can either create your own designs, purchase files or find open source files online. Once you have your desired design loaded up, you're ready to print.

"Take the time to really learn to design," Kaufman said. "Pick a software and spend about six months designing every day. Fabrication is becoming easier than ever; however, every good product starts from the design. CAD [computer aided design] will be your best friend."

Unless you want to end up facing significant liability, you need to be sure the models you are printing don't violate any intellectual property rights. It can be tempting to print models of characters from popular television shows or movies, but this could land you and your shop in trouble.

Always be sure the designs you are printing are free to use, or that you've obtained the rights to them. Otherwise, you could find yourself in a costly legal battle at best, or shut down and facing fines at worst.  

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.