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3D Printing – a craft idea for a social enterprise

One way that you can serve your local community is to set up a social enterprise or, particularly in this time of high unemployment, to help people set up their own micro-businesses.

One idea for such an enterprise that is worth looking into is making handmade crafts. This could be a good time to start something as there is new technology like 3D printing that could revolutionise handmade crafts in the next few years.

Black Country Atelier runs workshops on some of this emerging technology. They have also been involved in helping craft groups like Shelanu to develop their craft products.

Today (Saturday 2nd March 2013) I have been on a 3D printing workshop run by Jing Lu who founded Black Country Atelier.

What is 3D printing?

You create a design using a computer aided design package such as Sketchup – about half the time we were learning how to use this package. You then export an STL file that can be printed with types of plastic that extrude from nozzles – that are bit like mini glue guns.

If you want to start an enterprise with this I wouldn’t buy one of these printers straight away. To start with you might want to initially find someone with a 3D printer who can advise you about checking that you file will print properly. Then you can try using an online service like Materialise. If you are doing this all the time then you can buy a printer such as a MakerBot.

There are a number of packages you can use but Sketchup can be downloaded for free.

If and when someone starts working on this full time they could purchase a professional package. These other packages enable you to work quicker – three clicks in Sketchup can be achieved in one click in other packages. But Sketchup does have plugins that can give you greater control and most of them are free. There are also plenty of free tutorials that come with the package.

For more advanced 3D design Ararkik enables you to do sculpting freehand.

If you want to make a 3D image of something you already own you can use the 123D app which enables you to convert a series of photos of your item into a 3D image that can be printed.

How can this make money?

When goods have been printed they can be sold at craft fairs or online using Etsy. You can even put your design online for others to print on sites such as Materialise. Whenever someone prints it from these sites you get commission.

What can I print?

At the workshop with Jing Lu we practiced by roughly tracing a scanned 2D image that could be made up of a number of fairly regular shapes. We then extended these into three dimensions. You could try this with any image.

As the size of what you print is often limited by cost one big use for this is creating jewellery. You could create a necklace or a badge from simple shapes like these or 3D printed words.

But it’s not just for jewellery. There are lots of other items that you can print. You could make signs for bedroom doors. We saw some toy cars that had been printed – you just had to add the wheels. IPhone covers are also popular items to print.

There are a number of places you can look for ideas.

Of course you would of course need to improve on the warehouse ideas or produce something original to put on Materialise and making money. This could be a bit of a steep learning curve but it looks possible.

What other new technologies are there besides 3D printing?

CNC Milling

Jing Lu explained that 3D Printing is additive as it builds up the model a layer at a time. Subtractive technology have been around a little longer such as CNC milling that can carve your figure out of solid material.

Laser Cutting

There is also laser cutting which involves creating a 2D design – possibly in Sketchup but Inkscape might be preferable. From these you export a DXF file. Laser cutting is a more established business idea.

The shapes can be cut out in acrylic and by layering them, folding them or slotting pieces together they can still be 3D in the end. David Brannon who also runs workshops at the Atelier told us about some Christmas trees he had made and sold like this.


In the room next to us at Black Country Atelier Gary Bulmer was running a workshop on using arduinos. An arduino is a type of microcontroller.

What to make of this idea?

This workshop was fascinating. I think this could be an option for a small enterprise that is well worth investigating further.

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