Home 3D Printing: Economics & Learnings

How we (nearly) paid off the cost of a 3D printer in 2 years

In late 2014, we became early adopters of DIY home 3D printing when we purchased a Formlabs Form 1+ to explore the possibilities of this new mode of production. We had waited for Formlabs to release this newer hardware revision to ensure any initial issues were resolved with the first model, and also began offering a much longer warranty period of one year along with it.

Unboxing our Formlabs Form 1+

The initial investment for the printer was £2,800 ($3,600) plus additional material costs about £3000 ($3,800) over more than 2 years for replacement trays, resin, and isopropyl alcohol for cleaning the prints. It’s not a small sum for most, but we had some savings to front the costs. With little experience with 3D modelling and printing, it was a process of learning through doing. With a background in web development, we were already accustomed to self-learning of new tools and software.

Offering Printing Services on 3D Hubs

We decided to list our printer on 3D Hubs, an online 3D printing service platform which enables people to find a printer in their area to print designs on your 3D printer. Costs are set by the amount of materials used with a set price for time and labour; we set our price based on other hubs. Initially we priced our hub slightly lower than the average of other Formlabs printers. There were not many SLA resin printers like the Form 1, which produce higher quality prints than the many ABS printers, so we stood out. Despite doing zero promotion for the hub, we receive our first order within a week, and from what we discovered from speaking to 3D Hubs representatives at meet-ups, it was considerably quicker than usual for a new hub. Our hub was never intended as a self-sustaining business, but as something we did on our free time and on to top of our full-time jobs. We were interested to explore the new possibilities in production and creation with 3D printing.

In terms of software, we use SketchUp, a 3D CAD programme that offers a free basic version with a paid professional version, and Blender, a free and open source 3D modelling software. Rather than rejecting some models for being unprintable, we’d work closely with the user to clean up the model and ensure it prints as expected, and learned 3D modelling in the process. We also consulted and referred makers to other 3D printing technologies if we were not able to produce the print on our own printer.

Over the months, we received orders consistently about once a week or more. Other than closing our hub while we went away on holiday, the longest period we went without orders was no more than 3–4 weeks. Orders began to increase to a point where most evenings were spent preparing and cleaning new prints, reprinting failed prints and packaging up prints to send or for pick-up. Over time as orders increased, we could not handle so many due to our limited time and capacity. We decided to increase the cost of printing and the value of our time, since we also became more proficient with using the printer and modelling.

What did we print?

On our hub, we offer several colours: black, white, clear, and later grey, tough resin and silicon moulds. We printed everything from medical prototypes, fashion items, jewellery, floral sculptures, prototypes for board game pieces, etc. Clients ranged from students to medical professionals to entrepreneurs to amateur and professional artists/designers.

Examples of prints and materials

For ourselves, we experimented with a few practical household items including new radiator taps, our bicycle’s new splash guard, silicon mould for chocolate hearts for Valentine’s Day, and some failed prototypes for a plant watering system. We were one of the only hubs offering silicon moulds, which is a long and messy process.

We went from an Intermediate Hub on 3D Hubs after 9 months (25 orders) and then became a Professional Hub after another year (100 orders). In 26 months, we completed 120 orders and in total made over £4,750 ($6,100). We received orders from as far as Brazil though most were local in London and wider UK. Given the time invested, materials used, we’re not making profit, but it has been a valuable learning experience which also helped pay for the initial investment and open up opportunities to participate in the maker community.

Costs and Earnings

Expense:

Formlabs Form 1+ Printer: £2,800
Estimated total consumables: £3,000

  • Replacement trays: 15 x £50 each = £750
  • Resin: approx 17 x £120 / bottle = £2,040
  • Isopropyl alcohol and misc materials: £210

Total Expense: £5,800

Revenue:

Over 26 months (October 2014 — December 2016) we completed:
Total Orders: 120
Unique Customers: 72
Average per order: £39.88
Smallest Order: £6.90
Largest Order: £456.51

Total Revenue: £4,785.52

Total Expense: £5,800-Total Revenue: £4,785.52 = Net Revenue: -£1,014.48
Revenue and average price per order / number of orders per month from Sep 2014–Dec 2016

For a loss of about £1,000 ($1,300) we were able to also produce our own projects and learn 3D modelling and printing in the process. We engaged with a community of makers and discovered the different applications of the technology through orders we received, which has been an enriching experience.

Repair, Upkeep, Wear and Tear

Near the end of the first year of owning the printer, there were some laser focussing issues and the printer needed to be sent back for repair under warranty. It was returned within a few weeks. After two and half years it still runs well, though it’s more sensitive to dust than originally so need regular cleaning of the mirrors. There were several occasions where we had to dismantle the printer to investigate issues following instructions on the Formlabs website.

The plastic resin trays from Formlabs have a limited lifespan so must be replaced regularly. We used 15 trays in our 18 months of ownership before finding a reusable glass tray from third party supplier Z-Vat Industries. These still need to have their silicon coating replaced, for which we buy re-coating kits from DruckWege.

There is a now a newer model the Form 2, which has some more significant hardware improvements including larger prints, more powerful laser etc, and was announced in September 2015. Formlabs has stopped producing the Form 1+ but still continues to provide support for them. They also now offer an open API mode for the Form 1+ for open source experimentation with the printer such as using custom materials or using the printers laser for other applications such as PCB etching, which they don’t yet offer on the Form 2.

Formlabs have just announced a new bench-top professional SLS printer the Fuse 1 available for $10,000. It is a significant step-up in terms price and quality of prints.

Learnings

It’s not an easy process to 3D print, the Formlabs can be a temperamental machine to work with. It requires a high level of technical knowledge to operate and a scientific mind to learn how to get the best results through trial and error. It is a semi-professional (prosumer) machine that requires some existing knowledge. The process can also be time consuming. Much time is spent initially examining the model to ensure it is printable, preparing the model for printing by cleaning it up and generating supports, printing (including potentials for failed prints) and then removing the supports, finishing, curing and preparing the print for delivery. The process of producing high-quality prints particularly with resin printers can be troublesome requiring multiple steps that can be challenging and messy with use of materials and chemicals that need to be handled safely.

Prints come out wet and require cleaning in isopropyl alcohol before they can be handled by hand

For certain resins, such as the tough resin and castable resin, a UV lamp is required to further cure the print after it is removed from the printer. For this we found that a cheap nail-curing lamp that works almost as well as more expensive professional lamps. A UV lamp is also useful for joining printed parts together or fixing broken prints, as the resin acts like UV cured glue and can create almost seamless joints as it is the same material as the original print.

The Future of 3D Printing

Will 3D printing endure? For the most part, yes, there are now many industrial models that are being employed for rapid prototyping for the product manufacturing and healthcare industries. At a consumer level the learning curve and cost vs quality of the prints is too high. The practical applications in the home for personal use still needs to be seen. We know of several hacker and makerspaces who have resin printers that are underused since there is a lack of technical expertise to operate them effectively. The chemicals used need to be handled appropriately and are not suitable for a home environment as they can be corrosive or produce toxic fumes.

There are also ecological concerns as 3D printers mostly use forms of plastic which produces a lot of waste through the discarded print support structures and failed prints.

Support waste from prints

We see, however, the educational value of 3D printing in learning 3D modelling and product design processes. Though the Form 1+ may not be the best printer for ease of use and access, other kinds of printers like FDM printers can be used more easily with assistance. Nowadays most schools having 3D printers available as specialist tools for creative and design projects.

For ourselves, we have recently relocated to Hong Kong and have shipped our printer over from the UK. We discovered the 3D Hubs community in Hong Kong is much smaller and the platform is less used. It becomes apparent that the neighbouring manufacturing and emerging design hub Shenzhen has become a major destination for getting 3D printing done. We continue to receive requests for prints from the UK and internationally and have started a new digital studio for helping artists and the arts sector with digital productions.

You can find us at: www.metaobjects.org

3D Hubs: www.3dhubs.com/users/metaobjects
Instagram: @metaobjects
Twitter: @metaobjectsorg

Get in touch: info@metaobjects.org

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