View Full Version : 3D Engraving - Barriers to Profitability

Jason Hilton
09-09-2013, 5:11 PM
I'm laser-less at the moment, the maker-space where I was a member has shut down. So, while I work to put together funds for my own laser, I've been spending my spare time creating a library of art so I'm well stocked when I finally get my machine. I enjoy doing 3d laser engraving, creating elements that can be combined into unique products. I know from reading this forum that 3d is often not a profitable medium for lasers, but I'm struggling to understand why.

The most often cited reason is time. 3d engraving takes a lot more time then a standard raster engraving. Speed is certainly a concern, but speed of 3d engraving varies by machine. I made my decision to buy a Trotec based on the speed and quality of it's 3d engraving. While not everyone owns the same machine, many have the capability to do 3d at a speed and quality that are economical.

There are other reasons offered why 3d engraving isn't prevalent or profitable. One is that CNC milling is a better choice for 3d engraving. I would argue that CNC milling is a much slower process most of the time, is messier than a laser, more prone to failure because of the physical contact between material and bit, and requires significantly more finishing work to complete a piece.

Another reason offered is that there isn't any demand in the marketplace, which is partially true, because how many clients think to ask for a 3d engraved element on a piece? but isn't it up to us to create that demand? And additionally educate the market as to the possibilities? And this leads us to what I believe are the real reasons that 3d engraving isn't more prevalent, and also some potential solutions:

1. Producing 3d engravable artwork is HARD - This is absolutely true. The time and energy required learn to produce good 2.5d and 3d artwork for engraving is significantly higher than 2d raster and vector artwork, and producing the artwork once you know how is also time consuming. That said, once you learn and start producing, you give yourself a significant advantage in what could be a profitable and currently pretty barren marketplace. You don't have to be able to produce your own art, but that leads us to problem 2;

2. Commercially available 3d engravable artwork is limited - This is somewhat true. There are several online sources that offer a decent sized selection of 3d engravable artwork. Unfortunately, it can feel dated, there isn't a huge variety when you get down to it, you still need graphic skills to combine the artwork you purchase, and perhaps most limiting, purchasing 3d engravable files can get expensive. Still, for those with the means and desire, there is still a good sized selection available.

3. We're all too comfortable - Everyone has plenty of success with the work they're doing, why fix what isn't broken? While completely legitimate, I also think it's a little unfortunate, because there are many talented artists in the laser engraving community, and a vast untapped market out there.

What other ways can we create a market for 3d? More sources for artwork? More exploration into untapped mediums? Or am I nuts, trying to create demand where there is none?

Thanks in advance for all your thoughts.

Dave Sheldrake
09-09-2013, 5:21 PM
What other ways can we create a market for 3d?

Maybe by jumping into the same file market for 3D printers? stuff like the Form1 laser printer that uses UV curable resins.

I had one of the bubble lasers for doing glass crystal blocks (when they were still REALLY expensive to buy) in two years I just about made back the machine cost then sold it. Well...it seemed like a good idea at the time :)



Joe Hillmann
09-09-2013, 5:37 PM
Another reason there isn't much call for 3d engraving is because laser artwork is hard to sell in general. Some of the best paying laser jobs are doing tags or part marking or other "practical" rather than "artsy" work which often have very basic artwork or none at all.

Dan Hintz
09-09-2013, 7:31 PM
You need a fast and powerful machine to get any significant depth, and both of those requirements lead to expensive machinery. Expensive machinery requires a lot of high-priced work to pay off that machine, and the ROI for most 3D work isn't there.

Is there money to be made? I'd bet so, but you'd have to pick your market very carefully. The mom and pop market isn't it... no one will pay you the $500/sq ft price you'd need to print a picture of their kids scanned in by a PC camera rig. Where you really need to go is upscale markets where the price of doing business is buried deep in the pockets of other items (like ADA signs for new buildings). Either it's a centerpiece that commands a lot of money because it's highly visible (like the backsplash to a big corp reception office), or it requires detail that cannot be matched by other methods (like CNC).

Scott Shepherd
09-09-2013, 7:42 PM
A couple of points. The CNC router does a better job in many cases because the depth if controlled by the machine, not by the grain of the wood. If you did a 3D ball in oak on a router and laser, the router would be a ball, the laser would be a mess, with the grain causing highs and lows that weren't in the model geometry. So each has their purpose.

I also believe very few people make money with 3D work on CNC routers as well. 3D work seems to be the ultimate show and tell piece, but we've had our router for 3-4 years now and I've done 1 3D modeled piece. 1. It was very simple, it was just to create a shape I didn't want to have to create by other means. In my opinion, the router is just like the CNC machine for 3D work. Few people will ever pay for that type of work. Now, if you want to do 3D work and you're under the business model of "The machine wasn't running anyway, so what difference does it make if it takes 20 hours and I sell it for $250", then it might work. If you're of the business model that if your spindle is turning, it's billable work, then good luck. Some do it, but they are rare. 20 hours run time at the cheapest rate of $60 per hour is $1,200. That's $1,200 just in run time, so that doesn't count the material or the finishing. I don't know what you're making with it, but it'd have to be a $2,000 item and not many people are buying those things around here (just random examples).

I think 3D holds a lot more promise in smaller scales. Someone needing something custom made that's 4" x 4", like custom woodwork.

I've talked to a lot of people with lasers. Never once spoke to one that made a living or even good money off 3D engraving.

matthew knott
09-09-2013, 7:46 PM
I think its always hard to create demand unless you have a massive budget to spend on advertising and its a colossal gamble. Art is even tricker, lots of popular art is IMHO total rubbish but it sells for $$$$$ so what do i know! All you can do is get your work out there, probably don't even mention the 'laser' part as its irrelevant and see how you get on. Good luck to you, be interesting to see what you come up with.

Doug Novic
09-09-2013, 8:13 PM
Jason, I've done a lot of commercial CNC programming through the decades and some 3D as well. It was this that pushed me into the laser world so I tried some 3D engraving on a small scale. It had a mild wow factor so I went to an arts and craft show with these little pieces. Had about 30 of them plus other goodies. Only stayed one day out of two because I sold out on the first day and left with orders to make more. I still get phone calls from people ordering these. Small, simple and surprisingly sale-able. Is there a market? Depends on your creations. Profit? Yes. I won't get rich but it is a nice source of extra money and it has paid a months worth of bills. Get creative and have fun. Anyone can come up with excuses not to do something. Very few grab the bull by the horns and enjoy the ride.

Dee Gallo
09-09-2013, 9:03 PM

While I think your 1-2-3 points are valid, I believe you are working backwards at thinking about how to sell your work. I am a big advocate of researching your target customers before creating something they don't even know they want or need, but will fight to get it once they see it. So rather than try to make something YOU think is cool, sellable or desired I would look for niche groups who would be attracted to the type of work you want to do (2-3D carving). Find the most rabid collectors, the ones with extra money and most importantly: groups interested in something you either know a lot about already or have a personal interest in so you would be willing to learn more about it. When you know enough to be taken seriously, then you will know what they will go for even before they see it. Go after the high end buyers, give them high end products and you will be in business doing what you want to do. But this will only work if you do the groundwork needed, think creatively smart and have the skills to back it up. I spent decades training commercial artists and started many on successful and varied careers with this philosophy... but this is only my opinion, take it for what it's worth to you.

cheers, dee

Mike Null
09-10-2013, 10:50 AM
I guess I'll be a bit controversial here but I don't consider things done with a laser to be art. That's issue number one. Like others have said, the time creating 3d art and the time required to engrave it render the work nearly profitless. Add to that Steve's point about the unpredictability of wood and I believe this is an idea with much more risk than potential.

Add to that, in 16 years I can't recall an instance when a customer was serious about having 3d work done.

BTW, do not consult with friends or family about the marketability of 3d. They will love it--but want it free.

Dave Sheldrake
09-10-2013, 11:14 AM
I guess I'll be a bit controversial here but I don't consider things done with a laser to be art.

I tend to agree Mike, I have people say very kind things about the models I do but the reality is they are not a skill that took years of dedication to learn, they are just a series of methods that anybody with time can learn. Some of the wood carvers here have skills, all I have is a good memory.They produce art, I manufacture products.



Jason Hilton
09-10-2013, 11:27 AM
Thank you all for the great responses and advice so far! I should probably clarify I'm definitely on the artist/hobbyist side of laser engraving. I do it mainly because I enjoy creating interesting artwork, but am certainly looking at how to justify purchasing my own laser, hence my looking for ways to turn my passion for laser art into some form of income. I disagree with Mike that things done on a laser aren't art, but I agree with what I take as the spirit of the comment, in that the tool that creates the art isn't important, just the result. 3d Engraving for 3d engraving's sake is a bit pointless given the work involved.

Thank you again for the great discussion so far. I'm fairly new the community here and appreciate how much time everyone takes to share knowledge and advice.

matthew knott
09-10-2013, 2:06 PM
'Art is in the eye of the beholder' I think you could use a laser to create some pretty cool art, for example i like this http://www.chilloutpoint.com/images/2009/12/one-dollar-art/one-dollar-art-by-campbell-13.jpg
Im not artistic, i could never come up with a idea like that, but know i have seen it I could happily pinch it, things like this are different, I'm not so sure that 3D engraving can be seen in the same light. Much the same as those 3D glass blocks you can see in every shopping Mall in the world, they bore me now. You need something creative and clever, we where involved in a project where we cut shapes out of used drinks cans, they where sold as art, I only ever saw one once for sale in an airport shop but it was $90, cost of can was $0, cutting a few cents, and they looked quite neat. Someone tried to restart it but he couldn't get permission from the likes of Guinness and redbull to use their cans !