Practical Uses for 3D Printing in a Manufacturing Environment

A couple years ago I tried to convince the boss to buy a 3D printer for use at work. It’s a general use tool, I said, we’ll probably use it for tons of things. His very reasonable response was that it might happen if I could tell him how the investment would pay for itself.

After scratching my head on that one for a while, I finally made a list of ‘practical’ uses. At the very top was “it will make the engineers happy and I want one.”

We never got a 3D printer.

But I think the question I wasn’t able to answer is still an interesting one. Affordable consumer grade 3D printers are a relatively new type of manufacturing tool (available since 2009), so how are people putting them to use at work?

To get some answers I went to Dayton’s annual Advanced Manufacturing Technology Show (AMTS) to see some 3D printing talks given by industry professionals. (Also it was free!)

AMTS is a 2 day show where manufacturers from all around Ohio gather to show off some of the best manufacturing equipment and tooling that money can buy. It’s basically a huge room filled with expensive machinery put there for my viewing enjoyment. (Pics at the end.)

Michael with Jaws of Life at AMTS

At the show playing with a 3D printed Jaws of Life prototype.

The Jaws of Life model was printed on a $10k+ Stratasys printer, which can use a huge number of materials and print at high speeds in high resolution. They can even print in a special plastic that is 25% as strong as aluminum.

I brought some of my own parts to the show to compare the quality against those produced on professional equipment. Of course their parts were better, but I’m not convinced that they were $9,500 worth of better. Especially if my printer is only a few hundred dollars away from being able to print in Nylon, PC-ABS mix, NinjaFlex, or dual extrusion with dissolvable PVA. (A well-built Reprap is a perfect example of the 80-20 rule.)

In any case for most applications you don’t need all the fancy bells and whistles to be able to make useful things. I’ve determined that every practical application of 3D printed parts in a manufacturing environment falls under one of these four categories. All of which can be done on a consumer grade machine.


  1. Prototyping & Testing:

Making mock ups to test fit/feel/function or to communicate an idea is usually the first thing that people think of using 3D printed parts for. Sometimes you need to be able to touch something in real life to know if it will work the way you want it to. It’s a great use, but not the only one.


  1. Direct Use Manufacturing Tooling:

Various types of molding, forming, and casting can all benefit from the direct use of 3D printed parts. That is, the printed part plays a primary role in the manufacturing process. Some examples:

  • Silicone and urethane molding is done at low temperatures, so you can get away with a printed master pattern.
  • Vacuum forming jigs always have to have holes in them to suck the air out and pull the plastic against the pattern. 3D printed parts are inherently hollow so you can run the vacuum directly through them without adding extra vent holes which would show up on the finished product.
  • Investment casting can benefit from using a printed pattern to make multiple wax investment parts or even from printing the investment piece directly.
  • There are many other processes that I don’t understand well enough to describe. But generally speaking, using printed parts in these processes aren’t necessarily enabling the manufacturer to do something they couldn’t do before, but rather, they enable them to do it more cost effectively.


  1. Indirect Use Tooling (Assembly/Inspection Jigs & Guides):

There are an infinite number of ways to use printed parts to make custom fixtures to indirectly assist in standard processes. The use is indirect in that the primary process being performed is the measuring, assembly, inspection, display, or whatever, while holding the work piece properly is a secondary function.

Again, none of these uses are revolutionary because typical jigs & guides could also be made on a CNC machine. The value of using 3d printing comes from the (greatly) reduced cost of making complex parts.


  1. End Use Production Parts:

Of all the uses for 3D printing I find this one the most interesting. A couple weeks ago I even wrote an article for on using 3d printing as a production technology, where I argued that there are special circumstances when 3D printing is best choice of production technology for end use parts.

The examples I used there are pretty special, so I dug up another one involving a bigger a company. The new Airbus A350 airplane uses over 1000 3D printed parts. The reasoning is that each extra pound the aircraft weighs costs the airline $1,000/year in fuel operating costs. 3D printing enables them to make super lightweight custom fit parts.

Also, considering that Boeing has only ever made around 1,500 747’s ever, the anticipated volume of plastic parts to be manufactured for the Airbus makes it a great application for 3D printing.


I have another example from the ‘Engineering’ group I started on Thingiverse. (Oddly enough that group has become the largest one on the largest website of 3d printing files. This is my ridiculous claim to fame.) I asked the group an open question: “Does your employer have a 3D printer & what do you use it for?

Thingiverse Engineering Group

One individual contributor commented that “…we use a Printrbot Simple Metal to print sensor mounting brackets for airborne applications. Each bracket holds sensor equipment worth thousands of dollars in place inside flying aircraft.”


Well that concludes my list of practical uses for 3d printing in manufacturing environments. Did I miss anything? (Other than it making the engineers happy.)

Michael’s favorite pictures from AMTS 2015. (There were a lot bigger more expensive machines to photograph, but these few stuck out to me).

Flexarm tapping jig

A drilling/tapping assist machine. The arm is a jig that holds the weight of the tool and keeps it straight while the operator goes to town tapping hundreds of holes with it.

Parallel Robot Candy Machine

A ‘parallel robot’ arm used to deliver candy on command

Robot arm & box

A robotic arm picking up pucks from a jumbled batch in a bin. 

3d printed shockPolyjet Print Sample

Polyjet 3D printing examples: A multi-material shock & coil over printed fully assembled. They had Material samples including flexible & solid in any color including clear.

*Polyjet type 3D printers are a Stratasys specific technology, so you won’t find any consumer grade printers using it. They can print in a huge range of colors, and materials (including bio-compatible) in ultra-fine detail, but all the materials lack the strength of FDM printable materials. The primary use of these printers is for flashy models, fit checking mockups, and highly specialized medical devices.

DLP Print Sample

3D Printed Metal (DLP) Lattice Structure.

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