8 Real-World Applications of 3D Printing

 The origin of this list is simple. A no-nonsense customer asked us:

"What the hell do you really use 3D printing for?"


It's an important question and it deserves a straight answer, so we decided to share this list with the public.

This list breaks down the most valuable real-world applications of metal additive manufacturing (AM), based on 5 years of hands on experience, customer feedback, and real-world insight from industry experts and colleagues. To make things easier to understand and implement, there are high resolution photographs and explanations provided by Joseph Sinclair, Director of Additive Manufacturing & Hybrid Processes at Imperial Machine & Tool Co.


The Real World Breakdown, with Joe Sinclair

Joe is an additive manufacturing expert. He has a passion for business, and a knack for understanding customers. Here's what he had to say about the real-world AM application list.


1. Design Freedom


"3D printing allows you to make things that can't be made using any other technology. Take this lattice cube as an example, can you imagine if a customer needed this and all you had was a CNC machine? You couldn't complete the job.

Now this little guy looks pretty cool, but it's not a functional part; I'm asking you to think beyond the simplified example. Can you grasp how the freedom to use radical geometries can be beneficial? When real world constraints force you to rely on unorthodox designs, AM can be a great tool to realize a previously impossible solution."


2. Weight Reduction


"AM allows you to strip a design down to its absolute essence; high-performance, and light-weight.

This is a titanium nut for the M777 Howitzer, the military's ultra-lightweight cannon. By using lattice structure instead of a solid core, strength is maintained while weight is reduced - affording engineers the freedom to add improvements to the gun elsewhere. When weight is a mission critical priority,  AM provides tremendous value."


3. Customization


"A beautiful aspect of AM is that you can use one tool to produce an infinite number of unique products. There's no need to change anything but the CAD file.

3D printing has been a big hit in the dental and medical industry for this reason. Doctors can quickly and cost effectively get custom implants for patients. The rough surface finish on metal 3D printed parts actually helps with osseointegration, take a look at this bone brace."


4. Conformal Cooling & Heating

PPPL Conformal Cooling Comparison.jpg

"See how the shape of the holes above perfectly match the contour of the surface to be cooled?

3D printing enables the most effective cooling possible because we can easily fabricate 'conformal cooling' passages. Cooling channels can be the precise shape they need to be, and be routed precisely where they need to go, easily making twists and turns inside a part.

Cooling channels do not have to be round and straight anymore.

By the same logic, if you need to heat something - say an injection mold for example - conformal heating is just as useful."


5. Fluid & Gas Delivery

Fluid & Gas Delivery.jpg

"AM allows you to route process fluid & gas without the need to run supplemental lines. Delivery channels can be designed into the part itself, like in the photo above.

To give you another example, imagine replacing a traditional cross-drilled manifold with a 3D printed one. You can connect your inputs and outputs in the most efficient way possible; no need to drill, plug, mill or braze. An additional bonus is that you never have to inhibit fluid flow with a sharp 90-degree corner."


6. Component Consolidation


"Additive technology allows us to take what were previously multi-piece designs and fabricate them as one part.

No need to do any extra labor to weld, epoxy or assemble.

The printed piece above used to be a 3-piece weldment; it's part of an M24 machine gun mount. The military is very interested in component consolidation because in addition to labor reduction it reduces the number of unique parts they're responsible for. Consolidated supply chains are easier to manage than complex ones, and save significant money. The 3-piece weldment version is shown below."


7. Manufacturing Speed


"3D printers make things relatively fast - much faster than alternatives like casting. When up-time is important, AM can make all the difference.

A customer needed to replace an impeller that's no longer in production. When it broke, their machine was down indefinitely.

Creating a new casting would've taken weeks. Fortunately AM allowed us to get moving with just a CAD file. You have a usable part in hours, and your lead time is days - not weeks. When you 100% can't let your customers down 3D printing can be a life saver.


8. Cost Savings


"We had a customer who had an original 1871 Winchester lever-action rifle. It's absolutely beautiful. Unfortunately the original casting molds for the lever were lost to the ages; the only levers that exist are the ones from the 1870s.

He did not want to invest in casting or tooling - he only needed one - and buying originals is next to impossible, so he asked for our help. We were able to 3D scan his original, and cooked up a small batch of 1871 Winchester levers. The customer couldn't be happier with how they turned out."


 So what's the take away from this list? And why is storytelling important?

"What I hope readers realize is that additive manufacturing really isn't for most people, but in the right situations it can provide tremendous value. Knowing what the real-world applications are is the first step in figuring out if it can help your own business."

Joe paused to think for a moment, then added another thought.

"Ya know, the media has horribly distorted the reality of additive manufacturing, but they did get one thing right... People love a great story.

For AM to become mainstream people have to embrace the technology, and I think that sharing stories about 3D printing is the best way to open someone's eyes - to pique their curiosity.

Storytelling is a very special part of being human; it's the way we've spread important messages for thousands of years.

Sharing stories is more important now than ever... we just need to make sure the right stories are being told. We need to stick to the truth; especially when it comes to educating the public about the reality of 3D printing."