Sat, 8 Nov 2014

A Maker-ing We Will Go

— SjG @ 6:54 pm

When I was growing up, I was encouraged to make things. Well, rewind a bit. I was known for “putting things to the hammer,” i.e., breaking stuff. Sometimes, this was in pursuit of figuring out how they worked, or changing how they worked. This would frustrate my father, who was and is very good at actually fixing things. To quote Gandalf:

“He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Still, putting things to the hammer can be very educational. I attribute much of my mechanical intuition to having disassembled things and trying (with frequent failures) to put them back together again.

In any case, all this is to say that today I enjoy making things, whether mechanical, electrical, ceramic, or even virtual. I’ve been dabbling in exploring some of the new technologies that are becoming affordable to dabblers1 like me. I’ve gone to “Maker Spaces,” learned about 3D printers and laser cutters and engravers. I’ve become marginally familiar with file formats and techniques, and have played around with building models and uploading them to service bureaus like Shapeways to see how much it would cost to print them.

I’ve been meaning to start actually using some of these technologies, but have had a lot of questions. For example, I’ve designed a few lines of products that I think I could probably sell (nothing spectacular, but things that I think could be interesting). I’ve looked at 3D printing of them, but haven’t actually gotten to it. So when I read about SoCalMakerCon, I thought it’d be worth checking out.

It was definitely educational. I met a lot of friendly makers, and I saw many 3D printers in action, which helped me get a feel for the different approaches. I learned a lot about 3D print materials. The prices are way down from where they had been (there were what appeared to be decent single-spool printers at the $700 price point). Laser cutters and engravers are remain a lot more expensive.

Still, I continue to wonder about the economics of it. Say I were to start creating the tchotchkes I’ve designed, what would be the financial breakdown for 3D printing? I’ll start with ignoring the cost of electricity, design time, and I’ll make the assumption that I could re-purpose one of the old computers I have lying around to be the printing control workstation. I’ll also leaving out the cost of the time to babysit the printer and manage the printing. Print filament is around $30/kg, and I could print maybe 50 items per kilogram (give or take a factor of two). If I could sell them online at $25 per through a site like Etsy, I’d be seeing maybe $23 per unit with the expenses2, minus packaging and shipping. So to pay off a $1500 printer, I’d need to move 65 units. Ambitious? I don’t really have any idea. I don’t know how well something made in plastic will sell, and I’m new to the world of marketing crafts on Etsy.

Maybe the right business model is to print out a plastic prototype, and have the items themselves manufactured in China. That’d be a whole new can of worms that I know nothing about. But it would mean I could have the items in metal, or ceramic, or cast in resin. It would almost certainly be a much bigger leap — there would be up-front manufacturing costs, and because it’s not “create on demand,” I’d have to invest in an inventory.

Anyway, all interesting thoughts. I’m not sure any of it will go anywhere. But I will continue to be interested, and see what I can learn. If I jump in, there’ll be a new category added to this site, and I’ll post things in process, lessons learned, and more.

1 In the old days, we didn’t have fancy labels like “Makers” or DIY-ers. People just did made stuff. They were hobbyists. Those of us who didn’t have one particular focus were dabblers and dilettantes.
2 Sites like Etsy charge a listing fee of $0.2 and a 3.5% fee on sale. That’s pretty good!