Technology often walks a line between amazing capabilities and utter hype. Like 3-D printing.

If you've been watching 3-D printing over the years, you've seen it go from being a curiosity to technology that can manufacture prototypes and even create a limited run of final products. Now, hype aside, it's up to a scale in which entrepreneurs, particularly those with design skills (or who can access those who do) and unique ideas, can make products with compelling appeal to niche markets. Working with a modest investment, you can test concepts, get feedback, incrementally improve, and build a business that might eventually scale up.

It helps to start with some knowledge of how 3-D printing works. Reading design files, a 3-D printer deposits small amounts of material in exact locations, building an item up a bit at a time. That is why unlike some standard forms of manufacturing that are reductive--removing plastic, metal, wood, or other substances--3-D printing is called additive.

The range of materials you can use, depending on whether the equipment is consumer or industrial, is impressive. There are the printers that use plastics or resins of various sorts. Others melt bits of metal from stock rods. Still others also use intense heat applied at a point but fuse powdered metals.

Users can choose deposit technologies, materials, and sizes to do many jobs. You can own your own printer or job out work to a facility with the specific type you need.

Recently I heard from an old family polymath friend who, among other things, is an expert in electronics and ham radio. He noticed a problem with a common radio and began manufacturing parts that would correct the issue at a reasonable cost. It's a sideline for him, but something that, once set up, only requires him to crank up the printer and form another piece to mail out.

The other week, my wife brought up an example. Someone online was using a 3-D printer to produce custom cookie cutters--created to look like a picture of the customer's pet. Quite an ingenious twist. One more formalized company builds actual rocket engines with some parts so convoluted in shape that the only practical way to form them is with 3-D printers.

You can find many other examples. Go to Etsy and you'll find such things as:

Some of the examples are campy. Others, clever. Find the right places to market and you might be on your way to a business.

There are things you should take into consideration:

  1. Start with thinking. Forget items that can be easily duplicated by anyone with a printer, especially if the plans are readily available. You advance your business if there are fewer people who can copy what you do.
  2. Experiment. Try different materials and design variations. Make the best product you possibly can, as customer goodwill is always critical.
  3. When you sell products, expect to need a good returns policy. Help people trust you.
  4. Get whatever liability insurance that might be warranted. There are people who will make mistakes and then decide that you're the person who can make them wealthy.
  5. Think of packaging. Apple is a master of presenting its product in ways to enhance its perceived value. Not that you'll go to that extreme, but sales is about experience. Provide a good one.
  6. Welcome feedback and use it to help improve designs.
  7. Keep an eye out for particularly popular items. There may come a time when it makes sense to expand into more traditional retail outlets with mass-produced items.
  8. Try new items regularly. Because the startup costs of manufacturing with a 3-D printer are so low with zero custom tooling, broaden your offerings and look for the ones that do well.

And remember to have some fun. There will be drudgery (like printing out one after another of the same item), but plenty in the business won't be.