A Future So Bright You’ll Need 3D Printed Shades

ProtosThe 3D print-for-pay market is set to explode. Recent advancements in 3D printing, fueled in part by investment from crowdfunding initiatives, are creating a demand for 3D printed objects. Not only are consumers purchasing 3D desktop printers for home use, they’re paying others to print on their behalf, locally at 3D print shops, and online via web-to-print (W2P) sites. An entire industry is being developed to support this demand, creating opportunities from creation to delivery. I’m so bullish on this market that I recently created a blog to cover it and promote its growth.

In 2008, I had the opportunity to partner with the University of Cincinnati’s College of Business and guest lecture a group of undergraduate students. We tasked an Internet Marketing class with developing niche websites that would sell printed products to consumers. The class broke into groups, developed their pitches and shared with the group. We voted and the group elected to move forward with a site that would allow consumers to design and order business card-sized mini resumes. We determined what platform we would sell on, how we would market the site, and how we would produce our product. All we needed was financing.

Crowdfunding has the potential to remove the financial barrier – especially for those in the 3D printing business. Crowdfunding projects can be created quickly and inexpensively, often requiring little more than a working prototype and a kick-ass video. Those economics get even better when your prototype IS your product, as is the case with items printed on demand, in 3D. Several 3D printing projects have already successfully funded on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Even though most of these are related to 3D hardware and software, they’ve paved the way by creating a lot of buzz and educating potential backers about the technology.

Which leads to a thought…maybe there’s a formula here for creating new 3D web-to-print sites?


The opportunity for eCommerce niches within 3D printing is immense. While some sites aspire to be the source for all things 3D printed, others will specialize. Much like the 2D printing business, 3D printers will develop eCommerce solutions for both business to business (B2B) and business to consumer (B2C) applications. Some niche sites will promote applications that allow users to upload their own designs and files and others will promote templates that users can customize.

Consider the example of B2C eCommerce site Protos Eyewear. The site offers 3D printed sunglasses. Right now, users can select a 3D printed frame (template) and submit their order for print and delivery. Protos “will soon be offering custom eyewear with a tailored fit based on an individual’s facial measurements and dimensions,” something the company asserts cannot be done using other manufacturing methods. How does the company plan to fund their site’s next iteration? A crowdfunding project.

Think it could work? Could you use crowdfunding and crowdsourcing to create very niche websites that sell specific 3D printed objects? Here are some milestones for consideration:

Build your Platform
Decide right now. Do you want to allow user to browse and upload their own files or do you want to sell templated products? If so, will you allow customization and will either an uploaded file, or a customized version require a proof? These big picture questions will determine whether you can use a standard eCommerce system (Magento, UberCart, etc.) or whether you’ll need a specialized platform. Then the next question you’ll need to ask is whether to build it, buy it or partner with someone who already has it.

Crowdsource 3D Applications
After my class with UC, one of my thoughts was how to expand, driving even more innovation. Could I take the same concept to other universities and create a competitive environment? Fast forward a few years and I find myself asking, “why not crowdsource opportunities for niche markets?” A properly designed crowdsourcing project could create a similar “idea factory” and drive hundreds of new ideas for 3D printed applications.

How are Others Using Crowdsourcing?
Take a look at CafePress. The company crowdsources content that is used to customize or decorate 2 and 3D items (a coffee mug for instance) using 2D print technology. CafePress provides over 2 million shops, where customers can choose from over 300 million products on every subject imaginable — many available on over 600 product SKUs (from apparel and drinkware to posters, electronic accessories and more). Users can also make their own designs, then buy them, share them or sell them in their own online shops.

How is crowdsourcing working out for CafePress? The company’s VP of Business Development, Ty Simpson, said in a recent Forbes article, “I think [crowdsourcing] has opened a lot of eyes that what fans come up with is very effective,” he said. “There’s no way a group of creative people will come out with something better than a true fan who really understands the brand.”

Build Site and Print Prototypes
Once you’ve crowdsourced ideas and selected your first project, its time to acquire your URL and build your site. You’ll likely go through all the normal steps in web development – storyboarding and/or scoping your site, determining navigation and design elements, building the site itself, creating and adding content, optimizing for search engines, integrating with social media, testing, and launch.

You’ll also need to create prototypes of your product. With traditionally manufactured products this is often the biggest barrier to entry. But when your end product is 3D printed, your prototype is your product. This is especially valuable when considering the new rules Kickstarter recently implemented in its hardware category.

Crowdfund & Market Your Site
With a working website and prototype, you’re ready to create a crowdfunding project. You’ll need to create a project brief that answers the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions about your product. It should also describe your team and the risks associated with the project. You’ll also need a video which has the ability to sell the project on your behalf. A strong video is key to crowdfunding success.

Protos Eyewear is currently shooting the video for their crowdfunding project. According to one of the site’s partners, Richart Ruddie, “We are extremely excited about the possibilities and potential reach that a crowdfunding project allows for innovative companies that are looking to change traditional marketplaces. By letting the people vote with their wallets is a good way to tell if an idea or product has merit.”

Something like 50% of crowdfunding projects are funded successfully. To get your project funded, you’ll have to invest a lot of time and energy in marketing. Public relations, social media, and email can all be effective, low cost tactics. The good news here is that your marketing efforts will have a dual effect. Some will choose to crowdfund your project to support your cause or receive the swag you offer at various funding tiers. Others will buy directly from your site just because they heard about the project.

Rinse and Repeat
Once you have some metrics to gauge your success (traffic, clicks, orders, etc.) you can determine the success of your new site. If you like where it’s headed, keep up the good work and start planning your next project. If not, go back, tweak your system, and develop another project. You’d need at least two failures to justify writing off the investments you made in time and upfront in your platform. Failure seems less likely though, considering that throughout the process, you’ve engaged a crowd of enthusiasts who are passionate about your new product. What’s more likely is a future so bright you’ll need shades – 3D printed shades, of course!

This article also appears on CrowdHydrant.com


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. 3D Printing is the Fast Track to Innovation « 3D4Printers - January 13, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: