Part and Parcel: Selecting the Right Part for Additive Manufacturing


Nicole Hyman  

A SpineVIsion tool

So you’ve decided to pursue Additive Manufacturing? Not so fast. Have you thought of everything? Before you get started there are many factors to consider from the ideal material to use to any post processing steps that may be required. But perhaps most important of all is to choose the right parts for Additive Manufacturing. The reality is that Additive Manufacturing may not be suitable for all products, parts or components. Companies that have managed to leverage the technology successfully, like GE and Boeing, understand this. These companies have given careful thought to the parts they choose to Additively Manufacture. As part of our ongoing #AMNeeds series, we decided to explore the need to choose the right parts for Additive Manufacturing.

Selecting the right parts is a fundamental part of the Additive Manufacturing process. So much so that the parts you choose to manufacture may influence the success of the manufacturing process. Greg Thompson, global product manager for 3D Printing at Proto Labs, said: “If a part is hard to make traditionally, it’s likely a good candidate for 3D printing. If a design is impossible to make any other way, it’s the perfect candidate for 3D printing.”  But surely choosing parts to Additively Manufacture shouldn’t only be about whether something can or cannot be manufactured using conventional manufacturing processes?

Not every part should be Additively Manufactured, even if it can be. There are many factors to consider before deciding on the ideal part to Additively Manufacture. These include batch size, product demand and complexity among others.

Batch Size

Additive Manufacturing makes the production of small batches easy and affordable. The cost per unit of an Additively Manufactured product is the same while items made with traditional manufacturing only become affordable when manufactured in large quantities. This means that it’s as affordable to Additively Manufacturing 150,000 units as it is to manufacture 15,000,000. The small batch sizes that can be created with ease thanks to Additive Manufacturing make it easy to experiment and customize products.

A good example of this is the toy industry where manufacturing small batches can be used to mass customize parts cost effectively. The face of a doll could be customized to look like your child’s face, for example, using Additive Manufacturing. In this case the rest of the doll might be manufactured using conventional manufacturing techniques, further reducing manufacturing costs. In this case, the doll manufacturer strategically selected to only Additively Manufacture the doll’s face because the technology makes it possible to mass customize parts in small batches.

SpineVision, a company which sells medical implants and tools, also uses Additive Manufacturing for creating small batches of speciality parts. The technology makes it possible to manufacture specific tools for very specific pathologies. Sometimes SpineVision only sells one unit per year which makes Additive Manufacturing the perfect alternative to mass production. In this way Additive Manufacturing alleviates the need to worry about stock management, and makes it quick, easy and affordable to manufacture small batches on-demand. (Featured image up top is an Additively Manufactured tool created by SpineVision)

3D-printed hearing aid shells made by EnvisionTEC.
Additively Manufactured hearing aid shells made by EnvisionTEC.

Many hearing aids are also partially made using Additive Manufacturing. Generally the interior electronics of the hearing aid device would be manufactured conventionally. The hearing aid shell, which houses these electronic components, would be Additively Manufactured to suit the patient’s ear. Additive Manufacturing technology makes it easy to manufacture small batches which can be customized to suit each patient’s ear anatomy. Audicus, a hearing aid manufacturer, estimates that as of 2017 10,000,000 Additively Manufactured hearing aids have been sold.

Car manufacturers are also turning to Additive Manufacturing to fulfill their need to manufacture small batches of specific parts. Porsche is using Additive Manufacturing to produce spare parts for rare vehicles. Because these cars are rare, spare parts are near impossible to find which is why Porsche turned to Additive Manufacturing. The technology is the most efficient and affordable way to manufacture small batches of unavailable parts like the clutch release for the Porsche 959. Since less than 300 Porsche 959s were manufactured, this particular part isn’t in demand and is hard to find.

Product Demand and Location

In many ways, Additive Manufacturing is a game-changer for manufacturers. The technology makes it easy to manufacture parts in-house and on-demand. This gives manufactures independence from suppliers and guarantees a faster time to market. Some manufactures may choose this manufacturing technique over others as it can help them meet customer demand quickly and efficiently. In addition, Additive Manufacturing enables companies to manufacture smaller batches on-site in different locations which alleviates the need to transport parts.

Parts Additiively Manufactured at Local Motors manufacturing facility
Parts Additiively Manufactured at Local Motors manufacturing facility

Local Motors has its own manufacturing facility where the automotive manufacturer uses Additive Manufacturing to manufacture parts for some of its vehicles. Thanks to this facility, Local Motors doesn’t have to wait to receive parts from suppliers. As Local Motors design engineer Frederik Tjonneland explained: “There’s a huge difference between using an outside part manufacturer and having that capability in-house. The convenience of being able to print a part and have it in your hand in a couple of hours is not only cheaper, but also reduces lead times and allows us to iterate that much more quickly.”

The Moog Aircraft Group in collaboration with Stratasys have started using Additive Manufacturing to manufacture bespoke parts that are used in coordinate measuring machines for qualifying aerospace-grade parts.  In order to take an accurate reading, coordinate measuring machines need a special fixture which has been tailored for the part to be tested. Until now Moog would outsource the creation of these features. However using Additive Manufacturing technology, the company is now able to manufacture these fixtures in-house.  Typically it took four to six weeks to manufacture these parts. Moog is now able to Additively Manufactured them in about 20 hours. “3D printing was chosen as the preferred method of manufacture due to the speed of production and low piece-part costs,” explained James Stuart-Young, Manufacturing Engineering Manager of the Military Value stream at Moog.

Volkswagen Autoeuropa's poka-yoke makes it possible to position and assemble screws without damaging the wheels
Volkswagen Autoeuropa’s poka-yoke makes it possible to position screws without damaging the wheels

Volkswagen Autoeuropa, the company’s assembly plant, has started using Additive Manufacturing to streamline and make their tool making process more effective. Traditionally, Volkswagen Autoeuropa relied on third party service providers to manufacture these tools. This was not only a costly process but it often took months. With Additive Manufacturing the team was able to create custom tools on-demand. A few tools that the company has created include the “poka-yoke” which prevents wheels from being damaged during the assembly process. It’s estimated that to outsource such a part would cost €800 per part and would take over 50 days. In-house Volkswagen Autoeuropa is able to produce the part for €21 per part, with a 10-day turnaround time!


Additive Manufacturing makes it easy to manufacture parts with complex geometries. While it is possible to manufacture these parts using other techniques, Additive Manufacturing proves to be more effective and efficient. Most often these are parts that are interlocked and require no assembly or have internal channels and no access features. A manufacturer may, therefore, choose to Additively Manufacture a part because it would be difficult to manufacture in any other way.

Internal lattice geometry of Autodesk's seat
Internal lattice geometry of Autodesk’s seat

A good example of this is an aeroplane seat which was Additively Manufactured by Autodesk. The design was optimized to include an internal lattice geometry, making it both lightweight and strong enough to support the weight of a passenger. The design of this seat is more complex than conventional aeroplane seats. It would be impossible to manufacture Autodesk’s seats using traditional metal manufacturing techniques which is why they turned to Additive Manufacturing. The unique design of these seats makes them 56% lighter than the seats that are currently on aeroplanes. This helps reduce fuel emissions and could ultimately reduce costs.

Carbon and adidas have released a new line of Additively Manufactured running shoes know as AlphaEDGE 4D LTD. The shoes feature midsoles are Additively manufactured using Carbon’s technology. This new line of shoes follow the release of Carbon and adidas’ Futurecraft 4D range. Using Additive Manufacturing technology the companies were able to create lattice midsoles which were designed to take into account the movement and comfort needs of the wearer. It’s only because of Additive Manufacturing technology that Carbon was able to create these midsoles. Carbon and adidas’ new range features a similar midsole which was also Additively Manufactured.

Futurecraft 4D has a 3D-printed mid-sole.
Futurecraft 4D has an Additively Manufactured mid-sole.

Another good example of a company choosing to Additively Manufacture a specific part because of the complexity the technology makes possible is GE’s fuel nozzle. Initially the fuel nozzle was made up of 20 disparate parts from different suppliers which had to be put together. Using Additive Manufacturing, the fuel nozzle now consists of one part which replicates the complex passageways and chambers of the old nozzle. The Additively Manufactured part is 25% lighter than the original and 5 times more durable.

To truly see the benefits of Additive Manufacturing technology it’s important to choose the right parts to manufacture. The reality is that just because a part can be Additively Manufactured, doesn’t mean it should be. 

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