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How to make money selling 3D files

How to make money selling 3D files

Whether you just purchased a 3D printer to test your designing skills or have been printing your own parts for a long time, there’s a good chance you have considered ways to monetize your interest in 3D printing. From selling custom-made files on a marketplace to developing your own 3D printing business from the ground up, there are several ways makers have figured out how to pay the bills with their 3D printer—without printing counterfeit money.

(Source: i.materialise.com)

This article will cover the essentials of selling digital files for 3D prints, including what to consider before getting started, picking your niche, and identifying the right platforms for selling your models.

Getting started                                                                                                   

Before picking a platform or starting to set up your own website, there a few key considerations that can guide your journey into selling 3D models. Answering these questions will help you determine the scope of your file-selling project:

  1. What kind of models do I want to design?
  2. How much time am I willing to spend?
  3. Do I want to sell files to supplement my income or do I want to build a business?
  4. Am I willing to advertise and/or network to bring in customers?

Identifying your niche

When you are beginning your designing hobby or career, it is important to keep your scope small to avoid overextending yourself while facilitating improvement and growth. Instead of trying to sell cosplay designs, home goods, jewelry, and figurine models, think about what you like to design and who you want to sell to. For beginners, identifying a niche that is not oversaturated is going to be difficult, so don’t worry too much about trying to be innovative at the outset.

There are several types of models that can be sold at a profit:

  • Figurines/miniatures
  • Lithographs
  • Architectural models
  • Jewelry/wearables
  • Tech cases and accessories
  • Home goods (e.g., kitchen or bathroom accessories)
  • Keychains
  • Toys
  • Nerf accessories
  • Cosplay parts (e.g., helmets, weapons, and accessories)
  • Home decorations  

This list isn’t exhaustive—as you continue to work on your modeling skills, you may find that your platform of choice does not have a wide array of specific models that you might like to work on.  

Identifying your workflow capacity

Questions 2 and 3 focus on the time and energy you’re willing to expend on this project. The number of files you should be working on weekly or monthly will vary widely depending on whether you want to build a brand or simply sell files on the side.

For hobbyists looking to make some extra income, generating a few high-quality models and hosting them on platforms like 3DExport or Turbosquid can be a great way to break into the market without investing too much time. Starting slow and figuring out your time-to-pricing ratio is key. You don’t want to spend hours perfecting a model only to sell it for $5, but you don’t want to put out a dozen wonky models that need troubleshooting either.

For those looking to develop a business or a brand, the amount of work required at the start will be much greater than that required for the hobbyist, but the potential reward can be much greater too. There are additional considerations for those working on building a business, such as whether they want to partner with existing brands, whether they want to sell stock files only or work on commission, and whether they want to expand to a printing business as well.

Identifying the right platform for selling 3D print models

There are a variety of platforms available for hobbyists getting started with selling 3D files for printing. Below, we cover a few of the most popular options and their key features.

Turbosquid

Turbosquid is by far the most well-known marketplace for selling 3D files. However, its popularity does not necessarily make it the best option for those who are just starting out. It can be difficult to stand out on such a large platform.

  • Huge, dedicated userbase
  • Users benefit from active marketing or brand-building
  • Starting royalties of 40% or 80% for exclusive model designers

Shapeways

Shapeways is a representative example of the emerging world of websites on which users can directly order prints of available models. This platform is suitable for makers who sell figurines, wearables, and other popular niche items that easily standout.

  • Beginner-friendly website design
  • Flexible pricing structure
  • Requires quality control for print-ready prints

CGTrader

CGTrader is a massive marketplace for all things 3D modeled, including design assets and 3D printing files. This platform also allows customers to review the designer’s work, which increases their rank and discoverability.

  • Easy to use platform
  • Variable reputation structure allows designers to increase their royalty rates
  • Allows customers to directly consult designers to work on files that aren’t hosted on the platform

3DExport

3DExport is one of the oldest names in the 3D file game with a smaller yet stronger userbase than some of the newer, shinier platforms. This makes it an excellent option for both hobbyists and small business owners trying to carve out a small avenue for dedicated users or niche prints, such as tool modification or repair models or home goods.

  • Established userbase of dedicated 3D printing hobbyists
  • Modernized, easy to use platform
  • Relatively high royalty rates of 60­–70%

Etsy, Amazon, and eBay

Because Etsy, Amazon, and eBay are direct-to-customer variety marketplaces, you can easily establish a small brand and sell your files to customers. Many hobbyists have a love–hate relationship with these platforms owing to hosting fees, poor SEO, and problematic customers.

  • Easy to set up a store page
  • Complete control over pricing with no royalties
  • Customer reviews can improve discoverability

To brand or not to brand

Increasing the discoverability of your files and establishing a brand are the most important aspects of consistently making money selling 3D files. However, many hobbyists don’t feel like they have the time to dedicate to developing a website or the money to begin advertising.

Setting up a website is a good alternative to relying on marketplaces, which will often take a percentage of your sales. This benefit is offset by the need to generate traffic, often requiring that you’re willing to advertise or develop your own audience by establishing a blog or YouTube presence.

Making sure your 3D models are print-ready

While you don’t have to be formally trained or extremely talented designer to make money selling 3D models, it is a good practice to make sure that you are only putting out good-quality, print-ready models. This is particularly important for platforms that have a review mechanism, as angry customers can tank your brand before it even gets off the ground.

There are a variety of thorough modeling guides and courses out there, but these are the most important things to keep in mind when polishing 3D print models.

Remove non-manifold geometry

Non-manifold geometry refers to the characteristic of faces or vortices intersecting or directly occupying the same space. This is a common error that can emerge owing to poor editing choices of simple geometry, such as an extruding face that is “pulled back” into the original model without being checked to ensure that multiple vortices don’t overlap. Different modeling suites have various built-in tools to assist users in identifying and avoiding these issues.

Check surface normals

Surface normal are directional vectors that are perpendicular to the 3D model surface. For every model, each face has a surface normal. This normal should be facing away from the model surface to ensure accurate printing. These face surfaces can be accidentally reversed, which can mess up the printing process or completely terminate some prints.

Provide the right file types

Depending on the models you are selling, you may want to provide multiple file types and ensure your models are optimized for the formats you are using. The most widely used file types for 3D printing include STL, OBJ, X3D, Collada, and VRML97/2. The file type you use will depend on your modeling software and the printer you use to test your prints.

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