A man printing on a t-shirt

Instead of Selling Print On Demand Shirts, I Will Try This Next-Generation Online Side Hustle in 2022

If you are into online side hustles, by now you have probably heard of the print-on-demand business model. Most commonly known is selling print-on-demand shirts, but there are many other products available by print-on-demand companies. How it works is that sellers create a design, save it as a png or vector file and upload it on a marketplace or their shop.

Image of a product mockup used for print on demand business, showing a stack of shirts with the print "your design".
Print on Demand Business: Selling your designs on products without ever having to touch a product.

Customers look at a mockup of the finished product with the seller’s design on it. If customers like what they see, they can order it. Some print on demand company then prints the design on the ordered product and ships it to the customer.

Some of the most popular marketplaces are Amazon (Merch by Amazon), Redbubble, Teepublic, Zazzle, and Spreadshirt. With the proper integrations, you can also sell print-on-demand products on Etsy or eBay.

It’s a great business model for some, and it was a gold mine some years ago, but by now there are several issues with this print-on-demand market.

How Hard Is It to Start A Print On Demand Business Selling 3D Printed Products in 2022?

Everybody has a print-on-demand side hustle, creating designs in Canva and flooding the markets, often with low-quality designs. There are automated upload tools that let people upload hundreds of designs every day, and a lot of people do so. This means, even if you have nice, high-quality designs, they will probably not get seen because of the sheer mass of designs out there.

People copy each other’s ideas and there are even copycats stealing the graphics directly from the product images. The worst thieves steal the graphics this way and offer them in huge, cheap graphics packs on Etsy or CreativeFabrica, waiting for unsuspecting beginners to use them and in some cases have their marketplace accounts shut down as a result.

If you manage to get sales, margins are low and ads are expensive.

Don’t get me wrong, there are people totally rocking it. It’s possible. But you need to be creative and find good niches. I’m selling print-on-demand products as well, and I’m making about $100 per month with it, not dedicating much of my time to this online side hustle. Best selling products for me are t-shirts, hoodies, mugs, stickers, tote bags, and little drawstring gift bags. 

So you can make some money, you can even make a lot of money. But what if I told you that there is another way, currently less crowded, so new still that there are few Youtube videos about it?

Yes, there is. It’s print on demand as well, but it’s print on demand 3D printed products.

How Can You Make Money With 3D Printed Products?

Some sellers are already successfully offering 3D printed products on Etsy. These are the 3D printed categories that show up in the Etsy search:

Here are some 3D printed vases for example:

Screenshot from Etsy showing various listings of 3D printed vases.

People buy 3D printed sculptures, weird vases, educational tools, jewelry, useful accessories, and spare parts. The possibilities are endless.

Do You Have to Own a 3D Printer to Start a 3D Print On Demand Business?

Of course it’s easier to own a 3D printer for quick prototyping. But like with the well-established 2D print on demand, there are 3D print on demand fulfillers. It’s nothing new: Already in 2013, I sent some 3D files to Shapeways for printing. But printing is not everything Shapeways offers, they also have a marketplace where you can open a shop and sell your 3D products. Like with the “traditional” print-on-demand business, when somebody orders one of your 3D designs, Shapeways will print it and send it to the customer.

And now here’s the really cool thing that blows my mind:

Screenhot showing the materials offered by Shapeways.

Shapeways is offering wax casting! That means Shapeways will be printing your 3D model in wax, make a mold with it and create metal pieces for you. Here’s a link to a shapeways blogpost on how that works.

Do you realize what that means? If you feel like it, you can offer print-on-demand gold jewelry!

Moreover, there are e-commerce integrations so you could set up your products to be sold automatically on Etsy or Shopify.

I can’t wait to try this, and here are some more reasons:

Advantages of 3D Print on Demand

  • Hard to copy
    People can still copy your design, but it will cost them. You can’t copy a 3D file from a 2D image. There’s no way. So if somebody wants to copy your design, they will have to recreate it from scratch in a 3D modeling software.
  • 3D preview without any additional effort
    Customers can look at your product in 3D. Also, you can create perfect renders from every angle. I would still include some photos though, showing the product in use.
  • Easy social media promotion
    3D modeling and printing are fascinating to watch, so recording your creation process is perfect social media material. 3D printed prototypes vs. finished product could be great to share as well.

The Catch

Now here’s the catch: There’s a huge learning curve. 3D modeling and sculpting software are on the harder side to learn. “Canva” for 3D models doesn’t exist, and if it would, it probably wouldn’t produce 3D models that print well.

But for me, this is great, because I’m willing to put in the work to learn. I also have some 3D modeling experience already, so I’m confident I can learn what is needed for 3D printing quickly.

There’s another thing: You might want to order your product to make sure it is printed well before it goes to your first customer, so there’s some upfront cost, depending on your materials. At least that’s what I’ll be doing, as long as I don’t have the experience to tell what will print and what will not.

And lastly, there’s that question:

Is This Really a Profitable Business Model?

There’s not much to find online about it. Is that because it’s something “new” or because it’s not profitable?

Some 3D printed products on Etsy are bestsellers, but that doesn’t mean they are profitable with an outsourced print-on-demand business model. What I’m most concerned about is that the cost of print-on-demand 3D printing will drive the price higher than customers are willing to pay.

I found a comment from 2013 in a Shapeways blog stating that some of their sellers earn a living, and there’s this guy on Medium who was doing so in 2015: https://medium.com/@EricHoRaw/how-i-started-a-3d-printing-business-and-made-money-marketing-my-products-8ddda948fd6a

According to this article, he was making $800-$1500 a month from his Shapeways shop.

So is it possible to make money with 3D print on demand in 2022?

Let me find out for you.

Here’s what I want to try in 2022

I bought a 3D resin printer last year, so I have a printer for prototyping. Resin printers are used for small, high detail objects like jewelry or miniatures. You can get a decent resin printer for about $200 these days.

I still have to do some research, but I’m leaning towards creating jewelry. I will start by printing some prototypes to learn as much as possible before I open a shop on one of the 3D print on demand platforms. While doing all this, I’ll try to get some traction on social media.

Stay tuned if you want to follow my experiment and find out if this business model can become profitable!