INDUSTRY SPOTLIGHT: Commercial 3D Printing for Production Parts

Technology in the 3D printing space is advancing at the speed of light—everything from support structure software to material options and properties to ever improving processes. Some simply take these advancements as small steps in the overall progress of 3D printing, but these improvements are significant attributes that add value across industries and applications. 

Nylon handheld device 3D printed with SLS.

Medical and Health Care Development
Industries are adopting this technology for varying applications at very different paces. The health care industry has embraced nearly all forms of printing, but has particularly grasped onto direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). As we discussed last month, DMLS has a solid advantage over other 3D printing processes since it produces functional, production-quality parts from metal powder.  When plastics are concerned, selective laser sintering (SLS) is another additive manufacturing process with production in mind.

Product developers, designers and engineers in the medical and health care industries use many different types of 3D printing technologies, but why?

  • concept modeling and prototyping during early phases of product and device development
  • iterating design often to get parts in hand fast
  • reducing financial and design risks
  • building high-quality assemblies for end users to evaluate and influence human factor designs

Aerospace and Automotive Sectors
On the contrary, the aerospace industry has been an early adopter to DMLS for functional prototypes and production applications. Like health care, risk aversion is still very important, but cost savings for production parts is the key driver for aerospace engineers. Take an engine component, for example. It’s small and intricate with many complex features. Not so long ago, a simple widget may have been constructed of as many as 10 parts. With DMLS, it many times can be made with one. Yes, this single part may be more costly, but when you evaluate the cost of all of the other components, assembly time, overall size and minimized failure points, it’s no wonder aerospace has embraced DMLS.

Aluminum engine bracket 3D printed with DMLS.

Automotive is a bit different. Years ago, fused deposition modeling (FDM) was used earlier than many other industries. FDM has some drawbacks, however, in terms of mechanical properties and resolution. This may be the reason that, as an industry, it has taken the automotive industry longer to unlock the advantages of industrial 3D printing like DMLS. Recently, though, it has seen a heightened interest in 3D printing at the strategic level with many OEMs that are partnering with service bureaus like Proto Labs.

Across industries, there is a heighten focus on mass customization. This is where companies that are leveraging 3D printing will have a huge competitive advantage in the years to come. Any space where production volumes are low or customization is highly valued, 3D printing will grow more dominate.

See how industrial 3D printing can be used for functional prototypes and end-use production parts at

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