My interest in 3D printing started when I was an after-school student at the Digital Harbor Foundation (DHF), a Baltimore-based nonprofit that has a youth- and educator-focused makerspace dedicated to fostering learning, creativity, productivity, and community. My interests there quickly gravitated towards 3D printing, which led me to develop personal business opportunities and help promote youth entrepreneurship.
I remember seeing an iPhone case being printed; I was curious about the whole process. My friend and I both had the same idea of making phone cases and selling them at school. That sparked my first venture into entrepreneurship, a business we called Frozen Lava.
We had a lot of help starting Frozen Lava, but our biggest challenge was actually coming up with a stable product. We decided to make iPhone cases, despite not owning one ourselves, because of their ubiquitous popularity. We wanted to express our Maryland roots by adding designs with crabs or the state outline. In the end, we had a good product but we struggled to sell it. People often said $10 was too much for a case or they wanted something more protective like an OtterBox. We tried our best to maintain the business, but scheduling conflicts made it difficult, and our company eventually fell apart. Although Frozen Lava wasn’t successful in terms of sales, I learned a lot throughout the process and was even able to present the project at the White House Maker Faire in 2014 at age 16.
Frozen Lava led to other opportunities. I got a job with the DHF my senior year of high school and started 3D Assistance (3DA), a 3D printer support and repair shop. It’s been about two years since 3DA launched and it’s still running strong with new employees — the original staff has moved on to college or other jobs like working for a cyber security startup, for example. I’m especially proud of helping the team develop and grow their professional communication skills, such as learning how to use Slack and email effectively.
At DHF, we were able to capitalize on the success of 3DA to launch 3D Printshop, a small-batch manufacturing operation. 3D Printshop works in collaboration with the University of Maryland and is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. We hired a handful of our community’s youth to work at 3D Printshop and have taught them how to work with high-quality printers like Ultimakers and Prusas. We’re trying to prepare them for real jobs by teaching common workforce skills such as communication, critical thinking, project management, and self-management. The majority of our young staff are now considering engineering majors once they’re in college. I’m currently working on improving 3D Printshop as it rolls into its second year, focusing on developing staff skills in 3D design, 3D scanning, and client interaction.
I’m proud to be a part of something that is having a positive impact on youth. In some ways, I’m using the opportunity that DHF gave me and paying it forward to those who come next. I will continue to benefit from these experiences long after the paychecks stop. And like any entrepreneur, I’m always looking to grow and improve my business and myself.
Make Some Cold, Hard Cash with Your 3D Printer
There are lots of ways to make a few bucks on the side using your 3D printer, especially if you know how to 3D model. Two tips: First, come up with something unique. People will want it more if you’re the only one offering it. Second, don’t forget to charge enough. Follow this equation: (materials + labor + expenses + profit) × 4 = minimum retail cost.
Sell Your Files
Myminifactory.com, CGtrader.com, and Etsy.com let you charge others to download your STLs.
Sell Prints Online or in Person
Sculpteo and Shapeways are 3D printing service bureaus that allow people to order a print of their models. Sell them at a local craft faire or online in an Etsy shop.
Print Other’s Designs
Offer your print services on 3Dhubs.com. Always check the license. A print listed as noncommercial shouldn’t be printed for money, regardless of how you frame it. Telling a lawyer that “I wasn’t charging for the print — I was just charging for my time and material” doesn’t cut it.
Share Your Knowledge
Run “Intro to 3D Printing” classes at your makerspace. YouTube, Patreon, and Twitch can also lead to a few dollars here and there that add up over time.
Fix 3D Printers
Offer repair services on Craigslist. Folks often need assistance getting their machine running.
Use 3D Printers As a Tool
Your 3D printer can of course serve as a tool to make something else. Try selling resin casts of your print that take 15 minutes to make instead of over 6 hours on a printer.
—Todd Blatt, custom3dstuff.com