As additive manufacturing technologies continue to improve and evolve, more and more companies are finding more and more ways to utilize the benefits of 3D printing. How do you know if 3D printing services are the right fit for your next project or at least if it is worth looking into to? 3D printing has a sweet spot within the manufacturing realm, where:

  • Part complexity is high
  • Expensive tooling is required, but
  • not justified by expected part volume

Where part complexity is high:  3D printing offers design freedom because you no longer have to design with manufacturing constraints in mind when printing your end use parts.  You can design with the end goal and get the part you need.  Let’s use NASA as an example.  Using FDM 3D printing, they were able to quickly and simply produce very complex parts in production grade thermoplastics, such as ABSplus, poly-carbonate, and Ultem for their Mars test rover, shown below. 3D-printed parts on NASA’s rover include flame-retardant vents and housings, camera mounts, large pod doors, a large part that functions as a front bumper, and many custom fixtures. 3D printing offers the design flexibility and quick turnaround to build tailored and complex parts. For example, one ear-shaped exterior housing is deep and contorted, pictured below, and would be impossible — or at least prohibitively expensive — to machine.

NASA Space Rover

About 70 of the parts that make up the above rover were built digitally, directly from CAD to 3D printing.

Aerospace 3D Printing

The above ear-shaped exterior housing is a perfect fit for 3D printing – a highly complex part with a low volume needed.

Expensive tooling is required: What if I need my prototype to be in the same process and from the same materials as the final product? Depending on the number of parts you need to produce, 3D printing has the ability to replace your metal tooling with less expensive plastic tooling for multiple manufacturing applications such as sand casting, injection molding, blow molding, and more. This allows you to produce a short run of your parts, normally between 1 and 100, quicker and at a reduced cost, all while keeping your prototype in the same plastic or metal as the final production part. Have your next prototype in a matter of days rather than weeks – and save money on your tooling.

Sand castings mold 3D printed in ASA thermoplastics using FDM technology.

SandCasting Mold2

Production parts made using 3D printed tooling

Lower expected part volume: It can be hard to justify the creation of an expensive metal tool if you only need 1 or a handful of parts. However, what is the absence of that part costing you? Hours spent on design analysis, manufacturing inefficiencies, missing potential design flaws early on, delays getting a new product to market, lost business?  This is where 3D printing really shines.  It allows you to easily justify the cost of a few prototypes to validate and test designs, a mold to produce a prototype in the same process and materials that you will use for the final product.  How about that custom fixture(s) that would speed up the manufacturing process or that scale model(s) of a new product needed for an upcoming tradeshow.  All these parts can quickly and cost effectively be produced using 3D printing.

Medical Device Prototype created using a 3D printed mold

Tooling used in Injection Molding – 3D printed using Digital ABS material with PolyJet Technology

3D printed ergonomic production jig

Custom fixture 3D printed with a sparse interior fill to make a light weight but strong part


Ready to explore if 3D printing is right for your next project? Request a quick quote on your next 3D printing project or give us a call at 866.499.7500 for any 3D printing material or technology questions.

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