Industrial applications of 3D printing

1 April 2022

Structural elements, machine parts, finishing details – for a long time, all these products were made using subtractive processing, such as milling or turning.

The situation changed dramatically when 3D printing technology entered the scene. The production approach made a 180-degree turn – literally and figuratively. Literally because, instead of removing the material in the starting material, 3D printing adds that material by building the element from scratch. This brings with it many benefits and additional design possibilities.

The owners of production companies and industrial plants immediately found applications for innovative technology. It is most prevalent in low and medium-volume production. With the appearance of new 3D printers (e.g., Multi Jet Fusion from HP), the use of polyamide elements is constantly expanding.

What are the most exciting and promising uses?

Machines that print more machinery

Modern 3D printing (e.g., MJF) guarantees solid quality, excellent design freedom, and fast production (at low volumes). Therefore, it works perfectly for all kinds of secondary elements, replacement parts, tools, machine elements, etc. Notably, grippers and clamps, couplings and covers, as well as elements for measuring instruments and quality control.

The industry that embraced 3D printing most efficiently is probably automotive, which primarily uses polyamide. However, we will not find them in our cars. They mainly perform a prototype and tool function, which is why they require high strength and durability, as well as high precision.

Interestingly, vintage car enthusiasts use 3D printing to recreate elements that are no longer available.

The room for exploration

Like the automotive industry, many others experiment with new solutions on a daily basis. The problem arises when an injection mold is required to make an element, the cost of which can be counted in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such a colossal price makes sense only with mass production, which is why it ties the hands of designers who want to test prototype versions. The same applies to potential product modifications that only become apparent after production has started.

3D printing completely changes the approach. Let’s take our cooperation with a toothpaste manufacturer as an example. We used our printers to produce molds in which the tubes were transported. Unfortunately, the robot that intercepted these packages often broke them in the process. After a short consultation, we added reinforcements to the structure and eliminated the problem at a low cost. In the case of an injection mold, such a tweak would be uncomparably more costly. Thus, 3D printing is unrivaled for similar applications.

3D printing across many industries

What other industries and applications are the most widespread?
  • Aviation – “leaning” the structure for obvious, aerodynamic reasons is essential here. Designers use 3D printing to modify engine components, such as fuel nozzles (metal printing) or engine covers (ultra-light and temperature-resistant CMC composite materials). These engines consume less fuel, emit less CO2, and are more efficient and quiet.

  • Production lines – there are many applications here, especially when it comes to devices for “holding” the end product, i.e., all kinds of holders, molds, and measuring templates. Thanks to 3D printing, such elements are available “on the spot”, and their geometry is easy to change (which gives more room for optimization for company engineers).
  • Robotics – just like in the case of production lines, engineers also make complex elements of robotic arms and look for optimal solutions using polyamide prototypes.

  • Medicine – 3D technology allows for the production of highly personalized medical devices, such as prostheses or orthoses. Doctors can also use 3D models to train before the actual surgery.

  • Durability in all shapes

    The ability to print complex geometries is another reason behind the popularity of 3D printing. Unlike methods that remove material, applying it layer by layer allows you to create virtually any shape. The most representative and imaginative example is an ordinary ball, which can be made with any technique. However, with additive techniques like 3D printing, we can produce a perfect sphere that is additionally empty inside (and lighter).

    This creates a place for a completely new approach, already at the design stage. The parts that we want to come to life can be significantly “slimmed down” or give them a unique texture (e.g., create layers similar to a honeycomb).

    What can’t we do at this moment?

    A natural consequence of the relatively low production volume is that 3D technology is currently not used for “end” products. It is simply unprofitable, and injective molding or subtractive technologies make more sense the larger the scale. This is not surprising considering that the market awareness of the possibilities of 3D printing is still low. However, this is changing at an incredible pace, so we see a steadily increasing demand for printed parts.

    3D printing is the industrial future

    Despite a relatively short market availability, 3D printers have managed to gain recognition in the industrial world. New applications arise overnight, and the galloping pace of new technologies (such as MJF, which we wrote about in this article) only creates more opportunities to implement three-dimensional printing.

    We feel pretty comfortable saying that every industrial plant will have a place for 3D technology that will optimize costs and improve production. With an entry like this, we want to encourage our recipients and potential customers to look for such opportunities in their companies.