What do I need to know about 3D printing before starting a business?
I want to enter the 3D printing business and open up my own shop. My main target is architects. I can work on their models. I also want to target university students who could use 3D print for their projects.
3D printing has lots of business opportunities not just the ones I intend to enter, those will be my future projects.
First off I agree with you that 3D printing has a lot of opportunity besides the ones you want to enter. Most of the 3D printers print in plastic but 3D printers have been developed that print in chocolate (the kind you eat not the color), metal even sand for castings. They have even printed a complete home with a 3D printer.
There are some things to be aware of as well. One would be how fast the technology is changing. What you buy now may well be obsolete in a few years as faster and more versatile printers come on the market. One example is HP which has been promising to come out with one that will blow everything else away. Another is that some of the 3D printers are so cheap that a student could well afford one of his own. It is a competitive space with many companies such as Staples adding 3D printing to their services. Some of the inexpensive 3D printers are very slow. I was watching one (I believe it was a MakerBot) at a show and from the time I passed it the first time to when I made my second pass an hour later you could see little progress.
I do think there is potential and I wish you luck.
I like to highlight this:
1. Clarify startup business ideas - to sell 3D printers or to use 3D printers to provide services or to rent 3D printers or to run other business but using 3D printers to enhance the results.
2. I suppose you wanted to use 3D printers to provide services - this is the most capital intensive model. Different targeted customers required different types of 3D printers and material investment will be onerous if the mixture of customers are not correct.
3. 3D business as a service need not a physical shop, you can go virtual to cut down overheads or simply take up a small office as shopfront normally more expenses. This is because you may not do POS operation due to limited capital available to invest 3D printers.
4. If you can with huge capital, you may need to invest a series of 3D printers in term of styles, materials, complexities, speeds, & functionalities. Maintenance costs will be high as you probably have quite a few vendors + stock up spare parts + minimum materials level of production.
5. As 3D printer's technology are still evolving actively, life span of the invested 3D printers may last less than 1 year - thus reinvestment plan need to draft out carefully.
6. Customer type
a. one time off (student, architects, ad hoc work in)
b. manufacturing companies - to meet their urgent needs and loose production
c. personalised/ customised production - new arena to explore, a growing market with incapable technology
3D printers despite it pre-mature stage and concerns, there are huge opportunities to tap on if correct positioning is made will agile approach in adopting the technology is essential.
I would urge you try to mix the different business idea to find out the most suitable hybrid that can position you correctly in the environment you are in to increase your chance of success at the min investment.
The more you know about it the better. That would include all of the technical aspects, the associated costs, and the potential methods of marketing and delivery. The more educated about 3D printing you are the better able you will be to serve your customers.
Be aware that 3D printing is much more than just buying a 3D printer.
Models need to be set-up in the correct way for the 3D printer to do its thing. You need to be able to edit, and possibly rearrange the model so that it 'prints' in the most efficient aspect. You may need to add struts to support certain parts of the model, to support the composite substrate while it dries / hardens.
All this requires knowledge not just of how a 3D printer works (and there are at least 4 different types of 3D printing technology that I know of). It also means investing in various software applications - and learning those applications.
Also, as already pointed out, the tech is evolving at a frantic pace. Pro-level printers differ mainly in their resolution, the variety of filament types that they use, and the number of concurrent filaments that can be used in one pass. Inexpensive 3D printers are not only slow, but their output resolution is low. If you're targeting architects, I'd guess that they'd want their 3D model to render architectural details accurately and clearly. That may mean a using 3D printer capable of printing to a resolution of perhaps 25 microns or less. Such machines (today, at least) are still a lot of money - close to $100K per machine.
I'm not saying that your business idea doesn't have merit. I'm just saying that delivering a final result that meets with your customers' expectations may require a higher investment that you were thinking.