Is a 3D Printer an Investment That Saves You Money?

The original Prusa i3 MK3S, my personal 3D printer

A couple weeks ago I decided that I was tired of my soap in the shower staying wet, getting soggy, and then melting away. I needed a soap dish. To solve my issue, I spent a few minutes browsing 3D models, sent the file I downloaded to my 3D printer, and then went to do something else. Two hours later and for about 39 cents I had this:

A functional, vertical soap dish to help my soap dry out after using it! Some quick research reveals that I could’ve gotten a soap dish elsewhere for $5-10, so if we take the average price, I probably saved about $7 by making my own. Awesome, my 3D printer saved me money!

We also recently switched to solid shampoo and conditioner bars to try and reduce the amount of plastic waste coming out of our household. That gave me another opportunity to put my printer to work making something to keep those bars dry and prolong their lives. I downloaded a model that another user had created, spent 20 minutes modifying it in my free 3D modeling software, and $1.45 of materials and electricity later I had a pair of nice containers with a hinged lid:

It appears I would have to spend about $15 to purchase items of the same functionality. This time I saved $13.50! Combined with my previous project, my 3D printer has saved me over $20 in the past couple weeks. This thing must be a money saving machine, right?

So is a 3D printer a good investment? Possibly, but it depends on a few factors!

For an item to be a good investment, it has to have a positive return of value over the cost of alternatives (or just not buying it at all). It has to at least pay for itself. While it’s true that my 3D printer has saved me $20 over the past couple of weeks, that barely puts a dent in the $800 that I paid for it. After two years of ownership, I’d estimate the lifetime cost savings of things I’ve made to be $100 or less — ergo, my Prusa 3D printer will never pay for itself.

That’s not to say my printer wasn’t a worthwhile purchase. It’s a fun hobby that provides entertainment, and potentially a creative outlet. It also provides a sense of self-sufficiency: I can manufacture things in my own home. Rather than buying and shipping some plastic piece from China, in most cases I can download and print a functionally equivalent piece for a fraction of the time and cost. If nobody else has modeled the piece yet, I can do so and then share it back to the community.

Purely from a financial perspective though, I do think it’s possible for a 3D printer to at least pays for itself and maybe net a small profit in savings, provided you meet a few criteria.

Limit your initial purchase price

The less you spend up front, the quicker you’ll be able to make up for that initial purchase price. Luckily there’s some very capable entry-level printers out there, like the Creality Ender 3 for just $200. If I had that one, my projects from the past couple of weeks would have already gone 10% of the way towards paying for the printer!

I’ve used printers on the cheaper end like that, and while you can usually get them working very well, it takes quite a bit of tinkering. On the other hand, tinkering is a great way to develop technical knowledge. I’ve been through that learning process already, and my personal time is valuable to me, hence why I went for a unit with more bells and whistles such as automatic bed leveling.

I’d definitely recommend the Ender 3 as the most frugal option for getting into 3D printing. It’s the most capable printer in its price range, and the low price means that the bar for recouping your initial cost is feasible to hurdle.

Account for all potential income streams

Offsetting the cost of things that you were going to purchase by making them yourself is an effective, but slow method of making your 3D printer pay for itself. Other avenues of monetization include selling the actual items you produce, as well as selling “print on demand” services.

I’m not sure how effective selling 3D printed items in an online marketplace like Etsy would be. From a brief look, the site is overwhelmed with people trying to sell models they downloaded for free from sharing sites like Thingiverse. There’s dozens of people selling the same exact things that they didn’t design, regardless of whether the model was uploaded under a non-commercial license. I think that it would be difficult to stand out in this space even if you had a unique design that you made yourself, simply due to the sheer volume of items for sale.

There’s also “print on demand” services, where the idea is that you’re printing other peoples’ models for a fee, which can be picked up locally or shipped. You’re effectively leasing time on your printer. There’s several websites where you can list your printer on a map for customers to find. From what I’ve read this was an effective source of income several years ago, but due to how accessible 3D printing at home has become, these services are flooded with printing hubs. In most geographic areas, you won’t stand out unless you have fancy printers that can print obscure materials. So I wouldn’t count on making any income from print on demand online.

I have had friends and coworkers ask me if I can print stuff for them, usually something I made for myself that they thought was cool and wanted one of their own. Or a model they’ve drawn up themselves. Nobody’s asked me for anything crazy, and I’m not one to try and make money off my friends, so I’m happy to just give that type of stuff away for free. For more enterprising individuals, your personal network could represent a small source of localized print on demand income.

Do you want or need it as a tool?

Consider the value of a 3D printer as a tool for furthering your other hobbies and interests. Maybe you’ve been getting into board game design, and cardboard pieces just aren’t cutting it for your prototypes anymore. Maybe you’re like me, an engineering nerd interested in self-sufficiency and home manufacturing.

In many cases (and especially if you buy a higher end printer) you’re not going to be able to make it pay for itself. That’s totally fine, as long as you can justify the unsubsidized cost to yourself as the price of acquiring a tool. Or the cost of getting into a new hobby to spend your time on. This is much easier if you actually use it than if you just bought it as an impulse purchase. Which brings me to my last point…

Don’t buy a 3D printer if you’re just going to make junk

As evidenced by the most common content on 3D model sharing sites and 3D printing forums, many people who buy these machines seem to exclusively use them to print useless garbage like this:

Or this foot-tall waste of plastic:

Please don’t buy a 3D printer if this is your main use case for it. The model above uses over half a pound of plastic filament, and takes nearly a full day to print. The world creates enough plastic waste as it is. We don’t need to add to it by creating a bunch of pop culture crap with zero functional use cases. If that weren’t bad enough, it’s a waste of your money too. That Thanos bust would cost about $6 to make out of PLA filament.

I hear some people say printing stuff like that is okay, because they claim that PLA (or polylactic acid) plastic is biodegradable. While this is technically true — PLA will degrade given the right environmental conditions — those conditions will almost never occur outside of specialized composting facilities. The 3D printed items that you send to a landfill will be there for an incredibly long time. And if you try to put it in the recycling bin, they’ll just toss it in the garbage since it’s unmarked.

My opinion is that all makers have a responsibility of environmental stewardship. To use resources consciously, and create items with an eye towards their end of life. Chances are high that unless you specifically find a specialized recycling facility to send your printed plastic items to, they will outlast you and countless generations of your family. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying “don’t make anything.” Just try to ensure that what you create has sufficient value or usefulness to justify its environmental impact.

The final verdict

Is a 3D printer for your home an investment that saves you money? Quite possibly for a maker who purchases a frugal machine like the $200 Creality Ender 3. But let’s be honest: without a defined, well-thought-out, and thoroughly researched business plan, your 3D printer will not be a cash cow.

For most people, the best case scenario is the 3D printer paying for itself in one to three years by making cheaper substitutes of items that they would otherwise buy. It will certainly save money over time for a diligent maker, but in most cases we’re just talking about a few dollars here and there.

If you buy a fancy machine like my Prusa i3 MK3S, it’s unreasonable to expect it to come anywhere close to paying for itself for the vast majority of consumers. In my experience, the key to avoiding buyer’s remorse with a more expensive machine is to buy one that’s well within your budget and to view it as the cost of acquiring a needed tool, or a new hobby to invest time into.

While it’s possible for a 3D printer to save you money, it’s nothing worth running out and buying one over if you’ve got no interest in 3D printing. Rather, it’s mainly a way for those who already have an interest in getting into 3D printing to justify the start-up costs.

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