How easy it is to start a local 3D printing business and what can such businesses mean for the future of making? We spoke with Jan-Willem Wirtz, one of our early adopters, to find out. “I was in between jobs and was looking for something new,” says Jan-Willem, a visual artist by profession. “Buying a printer to test the possibilities and see what could be achieved seemed like an interesting idea.”
His first printer, a second-hand Thing-o-matic, allowed him to experiment with simple prints. The machine is fairly small (12 cm high) and its printing quality was not good enough to offer it as a service. He quickly realized that he needed to invest in a bigger and better machine if he wanted to go beyond the research stage. In August 2013, he purchased a MakerBot Replicator 2 and listed himself as a hub owner on our platform, joining a growing community of printer owners.
Ready for business
Jan-Willem received his first order through 3D Hubs in a matter of days and was able to earn back his initial printer investment in 4 months. In a good month, he receives between 12 and 16 assignments. He reviews the 3D designs that Makers submit using free tools, carries out complimentary test prints and sometimes helps customers adjust their models or customize open-source designs.
But Jan-Willem’s venture into 3D printing is not fueled only by potential monetary gain. He’s also in it to be a part of something bigger. For him, 3D printing has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing and spark a new era in which personalized products, designed by and for the user, become the norm.
Prototypes commissioned by students and businesses are the most common types of orders, but he also sees an increase in the amount of consumers that are interested in ordering customized products. He once helped a customer print several parts for a coffee grinder - a story that we covered last year in our Maker Talk series.
Another Maker was able to put his own set of lamps together with some recycled bowls and 3D printed mounting parts.
Jan-Willem has also helped Makers print bike lamps, GoPro accessories and a variety of replacement parts. “I once had a customer who asked me to print a replacement for his Wacom pen button. Replacement parts for these pens are not easy to come by, and a new pen will cost you around $70. 3D printing offers an interesting alternative.”
“These are perfect examples of how consumers will be able to produce, repurpose and customize their own products in the future,” says Jan-Willem. “It feels great to help people create stuff. You really get a sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself. It’s also rewarding to see people bring their own ideas to life.”
A vision going forward
According to Jan-Willem, a lot needs to change before 3D printing becomes a viable, if not standard, manufacturing technology for everyday objects. “Despite the hype, it’s not easy for large audiences to grasp the full potential of 3D print technology yet,” he says. “We need more choice of material, better resolution, and the error margin needs to be considerably reduced. You shouldn’t be able to tell if an object was 3D printed or produced in a traditional factory. Speed also needs to improve.”
But it’s getting easier to envision a time when people will be able to get their own personalized goods printed around the corner - instead of mass-produced in a factory that is thousands of miles away. “People will start to catch on as printing becomes cheaper, faster and more accessible. I for one make it my task to spread the word and show people what’s possible, and it’s working quite nicely so far.”