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

3D-Printed Parts Help Shape Future of Health Care

Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) is an industrial 3D printing process that creates intricate, high-quality, fully dense metal parts. Materials that are regularly seen in medical and health care devices — like stainless steel 17-4PH and 316L as well as titanium Ti 6-4 — are available through DMLS.

Small medical components built with DMLS.

This additive manufacturing process has a unique advantage over many other 3D printing processes since it produces functional, end-use metal parts. And it has advantages over traditional machining processes since surgical device development often involves very small, highly detailed components that may be impossible to manufacture by traditional means.

This includes, but not limited to, combining multiple extremely small and detailed parts into one part, which reduces the excess bulk required for assembly. A single complex part will often produce better results than an assembly of simpler components that need to work together.

Imagine the end of an arm gripper for a robotic device that stiches up a patient. These components may be smaller than 0.250 inches but are still required to possess the strength and precision required to tie knots for sutures.

Material selection and manufacturability aside, the health care industry continually strives to improve the patient experience. Keeping each procedure as minimally invasive as possible is a key element with this approach. Using DMLS technology lets surgeons minimize incisions, which, in turn, accelerates patient recovery. This not only improves the patient experience, it reduces the cost to hospitals and insurance companies.

And one of the most important attributes of DMLS? Metal parts can be prototyped within days so you can develop devices much faster and get to submissions, trials and production much quicker.

DMLS is enabling the next generation of medical devices. Don’t miss out.


DESIGN TIP: Metal 3D Printing Redefines Part Design

Metal 3D printing is helping to redefine part design, with capabilities to build ever-increasingly complex parts in less time and with little human intervention. Welcome to the industrial-grade 3D printing process of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), which is the focus of our monthly design tip.

Med device developers are turning to industrial-grade metal 3D printing to produce a variety of prototype and end-use parts, including these components used for surgical instruments.

Through additive manufacturing technology, DMLS produces fully function metal prototypes and end-use parts, simplifies assembly by reducing component counts, offers virtually unlimited complexity with no additional cost, and works for a variety of industries, including the med device space (see part photo).

This month’s tip discusses:

  • A short overview of DMLS
  • Ways to avoid warping and curling with certain part features
  • Part orientation
  • Wall thickness considerations


Design Rules Revolution: DMLS Requires New Thought Process

By Heather Thompson, Senior Editor, Medical Design and Outsourcing

As product development speeds up, the design rules are changing. Nowhere is this more apparent when looking at the industrial 3D printing process of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). Direct metal laser sintering is an additive manufacturing technology with significant potential in the medical device space. But it requires a new way of thinking even at the early design phases. In many ways it represents the transition designers must face when looking at new technologies to make medical device design and manufacturing faster and more innovative. 

Internal channels that are impossible to machine are achievable with DMLS.

There are several benefits of DMLS explains Tommy Lynch, metals project manager at Proto Labs Inc., primarily that designers can prototype designs in unusual shapes at both time and cost savings. “DMLS is different from other 3D printing because you are using real metal. Many of these materials have been used for industrial applications for decades.”

Lynch says designers like the process because they can experiment with organic shapes that can’t be readily machined. For example, one intriguing opportunity is the ability to build implantable body parts that are custom fit to the recipient. “These implants would normally need to be delicately built on a 5-axis machine at a high expense,” he says. “Technology exists to scan a person’s actual bone structure, and print a direct DMLS replacement.”

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Innovative Catalytic Reactor Incorporates Metal 3D Printing

Minnesota-based start-up Activated Research Company recently launched its flagship product, the Polyarc™ catalytic reactor — built in part with Proto Labs’ 3D printing process of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).

A DMLS stainless steel block that attaches to a gas chromatograph, the reactor accelerates the process of analyzing the composition of matter and is useful in industries ranging from fuel to pharmaceuticals, according to Andrew Jones, a chemical engineer, who, along with former Proto Labs CEO Brad Cleveland, founded Activated Research in 2014.

The Polyarc™ microreactor was 3D printed in stainless steel with direct metal laser sintering technology.

Fans of TV’s “CSI” are likely familiar with a gas chromatograph. The evidence from the crime being investigated goes into the crime lab’s gas chromatograph, the high-tech machine quickly identifies whatever is in it and a dramatic arrest ensues.

That’s great for a TV crime series, but the show glosses over how, in reality, as Jones explains, the chemical or composition analysis is quite expensive and time-consuming.

That’s where the Polyarc™ reactor comes in. It can quickly quantify carbon-containing chemicals in a sample without the slow, costly calibrations of existing methods.

The idea for what would become the Polyarc™ reactor originated with researchers at the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation led by Paul Dauenhauer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota. Dauenhauer’s group published a paper proposing a “quantitative carbon detector” based on their research, which received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences.

For more details on how Proto Labs provided prototypes and production parts for this project, read the complete case study here.