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Things to consider before using AM for producing end-use parts

Many manufacturers are looking for the right way to integrate Additive Manufacturing (AM) alongside traditional manufacturing methods. Most are already exposed to AM in the design-validation process, producing prototypes before moving ahead to mass production. However, using AM for manufacturing end-use parts presents unique challenges.

Before understanding what should be the right approach, we need to characterize the current limitations and challenges of this technology. Here are the leading ones:

Material Limitations:

Limited Material Choices: While the range of available AM materials has expanded, it's still limited compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Some materials lack the desired properties, such as high-temperature resistance or electrical conductivity.

Material Inconsistencies: Material quality and consistency can vary between batches, affecting the final product's properties and performance.

Speed and Production Volume:

Slow Production Speed: AM is generally slower than traditional manufacturing methods, especially for large or complex parts. This can be a limitation for mass production.

Limited Scalability: Scaling up AM for high-volume production can be challenging and may not be cost-effective for certain applications.

Surface Finish and Resolution:

Surface Roughness: 3D-printed parts often have a characteristic layer-by-layer texture, which may require post-processing to achieve a smoother finish.

Limited Resolution: Achieving high levels of precision and fine details can be challenging with some AM technologies.

Size Constraints:

Build Volume: The size of the 3D printer's build volume restricts the maximum size of parts that can be produced. Large-scale AM is still an emerging field.

Support Structures and Post-Processing:

Support Material Removal: Many 3D-printed objects require support structures that must be removed manually after printing, adding time and labor to the process.

Post-Processing: Parts often require post-processing steps such as sanding, painting, or assembly to meet desired quality and functionality.

Automated resin removal post-processing solution. Source - PostProcess Inc.

Complexity of Design:

Design Challenges: Designing for AM can be different from traditional design methods and may require specific knowledge and skills.

Regulatory and Certification Challenges:

Certification and Validation: In highly regulated industries like aerospace and healthcare, certifying and validating 3D-printed parts can be complex and time-consuming.

Despite these limitations, ongoing advancements in AM technology, materials, and software are gradually addressing many of these challenges. AM is a rapidly evolving field, and as these limitations are overcome, the technology's applications and adoption are expected to continue growing across various industries.

How to successfully adopt Additive Manufacturing

Successfully adopting AM in manufacturing processes involves careful planning, investment, and integration of the technology into existing workflows. Here are steps and considerations for a successful adoption:

Assessment and Goal Setting:

Identify Objectives: Determine why you want to adopt AM. Are you looking to reduce production costs, improve product customization, or enhance design capabilities? Clearly define your goals.

Select the Right Technology:

Choose the Right 3D Printer: Select a 3D printer that aligns with your specific manufacturing needs. Consider factors like material compatibility, build volume, resolution, and speed.

Materials: Identify the materials that are compatible with your intended applications and available with your chosen 3D printer.

Design for 3D Printing:

Design Optimization: Rethink product and part designs to take full advantage of AM capabilities. Design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) principles can help optimize designs for AM.

Software Tools: Invest in design software that supports AM and allows for efficient model preparation and slicing.

Design optimization for additive manufacturing. Image source - Novineer Inc.

Integration with Existing Processes:

Workflow Integration: Integrate AM seamlessly into your existing manufacturing workflows. Develop clear procedures for part identification, tracking, and post-processing.

ERP and PLM Integration: Consider integrating AM with your enterprise resource planning (ERP) and product lifecycle management (PLM) systems to manage production data and processes efficiently.

Regulatory Compliance:

Regulatory Considerations: If your industry is highly regulated (e.g., aerospace, healthcare), ensure that 3D-printed parts meet regulatory standards and certifications. Work closely with regulatory bodies to navigate certification processes.

Cost Analysis and ROI:

Cost Assessment: Continuously monitor the costs associated with AM, including materials, equipment maintenance, labor, and post-processing. Evaluate the return on investment (ROI) to ensure it aligns with your goals.

Successful adoption of AM in manufacturing requires a strategic and well-planned approach. By aligning the technology with your manufacturing goals and investing in education, training, and infrastructure, you can leverage the benefits of AM to enhance your production processes.

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