Real-World Applications of 3D Printing

Real-World Applications of 3D Printing

3D printing has gone through a number of changes over the years. In the early days, 3D printing was time-consuming and costly, and not very practical for applications outside of industry. However, with the advent of today’s more flexible and cost-effective 3D printing methods, there are areas where 3D printing has become a practical tool.

Replacement Parts

One of the largest growth areas in 3D printing is the replacement parts industry. One of the reasons for this is that parts can be printed on demand without the need for storing them in a warehouse. Plus, if a part is no longer manufactured, the replacement can be designed and printed fairly easily, compared to other manufacturing processes. The replacement parts industry is undergoing tremendous change because of additive manufacturing. You are now able to simply download and print a replacement part on your home 3D printer.

Useful Items

Sometimes a practical application doesn’t necessarily need to be an industrial application for a consumer application; it can just be something that is functional. As a designer, you have the ability to create anything you need for nearly any purpose. With 3D printing, you’re able to take that design and turn it into a working physical object.

Think about the things you do every day either in your home or in your office that could be made easier. Or, think about organization and where it would be useful to have something that’s designed for a specific purpose. For example, a very simple design of a wall-mounted bracket for hanging headphones near your computer.

Industry-Based Applications

Industry-Based Applications

3D printing is spread across a large number of industries.


Professional applications are by far the largest category relating to the use of 3D printing today. While this category continues to grow, there are some key areas that have seen a wide adoption of additive manufacturing technologies.


The first and by far the largest application of 3D printing technology is prototype development. In the early days of 3D printing, designers and engineers realized they could save time and money by having their prototypes printed instead of machined. At first, the prototype had to be sent out to a service bureau, unless the company could afford one of the few very high-priced printers that were available at the time. In just the last few years, however, printer costs have come down dramatically, while output quality has increased to a level where even inexpensive printers can output parts good enough for prototyping.


With the advent of low-cost 3D printers in 2008 came a new form of expression as output became available. Immediately, people put their printers to use creating all types of 3D printed designs. Within the vast number of categories of things being 3D printed, some of the more popular models created can fall under three main categories: art and design, cosplay, and toys and games.

Most Active Technologies

While there are a number of technologies in use today in the 3D printing world, a couple of them have become more predominant. This is for several reasons, but the primary reason is the end of patents on several key elements of each of these technologies. One common factor with all 3D printing technologies is the idea of creating a part using successive layers of material.


Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) or Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), is a 3D printing process that uses a strand of plastic filament that is extruded through the heated nozzle. This technology is the most popular of all of the 3D printing technologies due to the fact that it is simple to implement and can create very high-quality products. It is a technology that has been around since the early 1990s, and is a process that was developed by S. Scott Crump, and commercialized and marketed under the trademark abbreviation FDM by Stratasys Inc.

With the expiration of the original patent, there was an increased interest, initially by hobbyists and enthusiasts, to develop the technology for both professionals and consumers. Today, there are hundreds of printers using this technology that range in price from only a few hundred dollars on up.


Stereolithography is a term coined by Chuck Hull in 1986, after he patented it as a method of creating 3D objects using UV light and a liquid photopolymer. The initial design used an ultraviolet laser that focused the beam at the bottom of a vat of resin. The laser would harden the resin for that layer, and the model would be lifted, and another layer created beneath the previous. This built a 3D object by adding successive layers.

This technology was taken to market by 3D systems, who developed a range of SLA 3D printers that are still in use today. One of the major advantages of Stereolithography is the ability to create very high quality parts with minute surface detail. By using a laser or DLP projector, today’s printers can resolve details as small as just a few microns across. This makes Stereolithography ideal for creating jewelry and other finely detailed objects. And like FDM, the patent for this technology has also expired, allowing for a large number of printers to be available on the market.

Important Issues

With the advent of the additive manufacturing, a number of issues have come to the forefront. Many of these issues have yet to be resolved, and may require the intervention of governments to solve them.

IP Protection

Intellectual property protection is by far the number one issue surrounding 3D printing and additive manufacturing today. Some have estimated global losses of intellectual property because of 3D printing to be over $100 billion per year. Additive manufacturing has undone in a few short years what manufacturing has taken decades to secure. It has upended traditional supply chains and allows users to bypass the manufacturer and 3D print a physical part that was created on a computer, or 3D scanned. This lets users print nearly anything, even patented and copyrighted designs. And this issue is going to continue to grow, along with the growth of the 3D printing industry.

Traditionally, a manufacturer had a tightly controlled supply chain, beginning with the initial design all the way through to the final delivered product. If a consumer wanted one of these products, they would need to purchase it either locally or online. This gave the manufacturer control over their products and their intellectual property.

With the introduction of 3D printing, that all changed. Now there are a large number of different types of supply chains that have been created. Each of these new supply chains creates potential risks for the theft of intellectual property, and if not outright theft, at least a loss of control over that property.

This is the reality of 3D printing today. Digital files of real things change hands with little or no control over who creates it or when it gets created. This is where the music industry was at the time of Napster. The difference today is how the major players are handling the loss of IP control. So far, the industries most affected by 3D printing have taken a step back and are looking at where everything is heading. That’s not to say they are not going after IP theft; plenty of companies actively remove offending models from sites like Thingiverse and others. It is the smart companies that see the future and want to be a big part of it.

The protection of intellectual property has grown increasingly more complex an issue with the introduction of 3D printing. Many are looking to regulators and IP related organizations to craft rules that everyone can work with. This will not be an easy task.

Security and Hacking

Computer security is a top priority for every industry related to computers and cyberspace. It’s only recently that cyber security and threats of hacking have come to the forefront of 3D printing. When it comes to security for additive manufacturing, it is not something the industry takes for granted. There are several issues related to security when it comes to 3D printing technology. The two most talked about are the purposeful introduction of print flaws, and the theft of data files for printing from the printer itself.

The introduction of a flaw in the print process may not affect a large number of parts. However, when it comes to the printing of critical components for aviation, automotive and other industries, the flaw in the print can have catastrophic consequences. Take, for example, the printing of a rocket nozzle. A perfect print will meet all the design specifications and be able to take the stresses and strains the part was designed for. When a flaw is purposely introduced for nefarious reasons, that part is no longer able to function properly and could potentially be the cause of part failure.

Hacking into a computer system and stealing data is nothing new to the world of cyberspace. Today, many 3D printers are connected directly to in-network systems. Because of that, they’re vulnerable to outside intruders. Now, it is not likely that the average person will experience an issue with their 3D printer being hacked and their data stolen, but it remains an issue for large manufacturers, who are taking this very seriously.

Material Safety

One of the issues that has been part of manufacturing since the early days is the issue of material safety. The material safety issues that are related to 3D printing depend greatly on the process being used. Examining a few of the different material types reveals some of the problems with handling these materials and the safety measures that must be employed.

FDM or FFF printers use a variety of filaments for printing. Material safety for the vast variety of filaments range dramatically. PLA (poly lactic acid), and ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) are two of the most often used materials for filament-based 3D printers. PLA is a thermoplastic polyester derived from things like cornstarch. It is generally considered to be a fairly safe material to work with and can be used in nearly all environments, keeping in mind that it is always good to have clean air circulating, no matter what material you’re printing.

ABS, on the other hand, is made from Acrylonitrile, Butadiene and Styrene, and is a petroleum-based product. Gases and particulates from the printing of ABS filaments are released into the air and are potentially hazardous to human health. Therefore, when printing with ABS, it is important to not only have good ventilation, but it is also helpful to have filtration of the air coming out of the printer.

There are a variety of other filament types available for fused filament fabrication printing. Each manufacturer can have a different formulation and use different materials. Materials that can be added, like metals, wood, brick and more, change the makeup of the filament. To find out about the safety of these materials, look for the material safety data sheet from the manufacturer.

Stereolithography uses UV curable liquid resins to create 3D objects. Many of these resins are a mixture of acrylic acid investors mixed with a photoinitiator and can cause skin, respiratory, and eye irritation. These are among some of the issues these resins can cause, which is why it is important to follow any instructions provided by the printer’s manufacturer for safe material handling.

Selective laser sintering, binder jetting, and other power-based printing methods use extremely fine powers. These powers can be metals, plastics, or other materials, like gypsum. These materials can pose risks to human health if they are inhaled and handled improperly. Some also pose a risk of being explosive if ignited by a spark or flame. Handling these materials in a safe manner can add additional cost to a printing setup.

Steven Schain is the postproduction supervisor for all CADLearning products from 4D Technologies, specializing in the development of Media & Entertainment CADLearning products for Autodesk, Inc., software, including 3ds Max software and Maya software.


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