Additive manufacturing (AM) produces products via a streamlined process and accommodates a variety of shapes and geometries. Its potential across a range of industries—particularly aerospace and medical—has led to optimistic growth forecasts. According to market research and consulting firm Reports and Data, the global market will flourish at a rate of 14.4% to reach $23.33 billion in 2026.
While the promise of AM has led many enterprises to invest in the segment, the field can sometimes still feel like the Wild West in terms of best practices. Below, industry experts offer advice on how enterprises using AM can improve outcomes.
Ensure you have designed for additive
“If you simply print out an existing design on an additive machine, it’s almost never cost-effective,” says Jack Beuth, co-director, Next Manufacturing Center and professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “You have to design that component to exploit the capabilities of additive manufacturing.”
Ask yourself if you have truly leveraged the advantages of AM when going back to the design board. “In designing an AM-fabricated part, most of the traditional design-for-manufacturing constraints go away,” Beuth says. “Traditional processes such as casting, forging and machining can put substantial constraints on the geometry of fabricated parts. As a result, traditionally manufactured component designs typically include much more material than is required for the application, due to the need to satisfy manufacturing constraints on geometry.”
However, there are some design-for-manufacturing constraints for AM. There are limits to feature size (e.g., lower bounds on the thickness of walls or fins), constraints on overhang geometries, and generally it is good to minimize the need for support structures. However, these limits are minor compared to the constraints imposed by traditional manufacturing processes, Beuth says.
“Fully optimized AM designs typically look ‘organic’ in their shape and can include complex thin walled or cellular features other processes cannot easily create,” Beuth says. “Designers generally must forget about traditional shapes of mechanical components when designing for AM.”
Not all AM processes are created equal
AM is not just about printing the part; it also involves heat-treating, surface finishing and other post-processing steps, Beuth says. Processes to choose from include direct metal laser melting (DMLM) that uses lasers to melt ultra-thin layers of metal powder; electron beam melting (EBM) that uses an electron beam to melt and print; and binder jetting, in which a liquid binding agent is deposited to bind powders.
If your AM processes are not working, there may be questions you need to ask. “What is the intended application or use case? Is it functional prototypes? Is it maintenance and repair? Is this for production parts? Not every machine can produce the same effect in each of those worlds,” says Ryan Martin, principal analyst at ABI Research.
There are various AM methodologies that are best used for various functionalities. Functional prototypes are generally produced using binder jetting or powder bed fusion (a laser or electron beam is used to fuse powders together). “This category of use case is most often employed in aerospace and defense. EOS, Renishaw, GE Additive are all major powder bed fusion players, which is often used for intricate, full-density parts,” Martin says. “Its traditional limitations are cost and output capacity—machines are expensive and slow—this will change as newer players emerge from stealth.”
Match AM to the right parts
While there is room for AM in every industry, not everything will benefit from the technology. “If someone comes up to me and asks, ‘can I print this additively?’ I would almost always say yes, but you have to ask if and why it makes sense as the AM benefits can be lost if only changing the manufacturing technology. You need to take a broader perspective of manufacturing and the system design to really find the disruptive benefits, it may be a redesign resulting in a longer life cycle of the product, it may be consolidation of parts that can reduce or even remove the current supply chain,” says Maria Öström, medical product manager, AddWorks at GE Additive.
“The part size can’t be bigger than the build volume,” Beuth says. “Only certain materials (316 stainless steel for example) are supported. Redesign is also a big consideration.”
Meanwhile, Martin advises to "go back to the STL file and run it through a program like Xometry, which evaluates designs for manufacturability. You want to use the right technology for the right process, you really want to look at the optimal mix of tools in the kitchen to make the desired meal that you want.”
Hitting speed bumps with scale
Few AM machines today are built for production environments. “Scaling the process out of the lab to a production-type environment where you are making thousands of parts per year, cost-efficiently, is the greatest challenge for AM over the next 5-10 years,” Beuth says.
Martin agrees, and advises companies to understand what the production line will look like for AM. “The market is starting with mostly prototyping kind of work because you’re not just going to take one of these machines and replace CNC [computer numerical control] activity with additive and then produce tens or hundreds of thousands of parts,” he says. “This is a crawl-walk-run in terms of technology implementation.”
“Companies can sometimes get fixated on the part they’re trying to reengineer and don’t start to think about the impact additive might have on its supply chain or the best way to integrate it into their business until a little later on in their additive journey,” says Shaun Wootton, PR and media relations leader at GE Additive.
Help is available
Reaching out to resources such as ASME who can provide education on AM is invaluable to reevaluate your business plan as you move into the future.
“Since the additive industry is changing so rapidly, if you base all your strategic planning expenditures on what’s available today, you’re going to miss the boat,” Beuth says.