Additive Manufactured (3D Printed) Tooling Comes of Age

>>Additive Manufactured (3D Printed) Tooling Comes of Age

Additive Manufactured (3D Printed) Tooling Comes of Age

A Tooling Case Study

     A few years ago, a small but rapidly growing US startup faced a problem.  Initial product lines had been successful and the market was hot.  The owner had bootstrapped the startup and pulled together the resources to produce an improved machine.  Speed, quality and performance would be greatly enhanced and the new line would usher in new growth.  The issue facing the new product line was one common to industries of any size.  Namely, the tooling for many parts of the machine ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  And while the tooling would allow parts production for around 50,000 units, the reality was that cumulatively, the three previous lines had not reached that level of sales.  If the machine needed design changes, capital for new tooling would not be available.

     The owner rolled the dice and funneled the necessary capital for tooling.  To do so, he cut corners in engineering steps required to validate aspects of the design as well as in purchasing which led to the purchase of sub-par components.  When the tooling was complete and the parts produced, assembly began in earnest.  The finished machine wound up with numerous problems.  The assembled machine was canted at nearly four degrees and internal sections didn’t connect as designed.  Further, twenty five percent of the electronic components were scrapped due to poor quality.  To salvage the roll out, expensive jigs and fixtures were created to allow components to be cut, sanded, drilled and reassembled.  The project cost, initially estimated at one million dollars, came in at two and a half million for a company with under ten million in annual sales and the launch was delayed by six months.

     Later investigation would find that tolerance stack analysis had been missing or skipped.  Additionally, purchasing had used aftermarket sources to buy key components.   The cost of the tooling was so high for the size and scale of the enterprise that it had created a domino effect on all aspects of the project in terms of cost and time.

     While most companies do not face a challenge this dire, many can relate to elements of the above chain of events.  Cost alone is enough for many companies to allow a new product idea or launch to revolve totally around the cost of tooling.  The second consideration is time.  Even in well-funded companies with a strong capital investment program, time to market can make or break the decision to fund tooling for a given year and in some cases, can shelve the project all together.

Benefits of AM Tooling

     In the case study above the company could have benefited from the many advancements in 3D printing and 3D technology available to bring its final product to market successfully.  Additive Manufacturing (AM) tooling has begun to address both the cost and time component of complex projects.  The benefits of the use of AM tooling are broad and affordable enough to be accessible to almost any industry and to companies of any size and scale. 

     In approaching a new project requiring expensive tooling companies have traditionally faced two options:

  • Raise enough capital for tooling:
    • With this option, company size is a consideration. If the enterprise is small, expensive tooling could create a do or die situation as in the above case study with success hinging on getting the design right on the first try.  Medium sized companies may have to look at costs for tooling for new products in comparison to other capital needs such as facility upkeep and expansion of existing product lines or less expensive new products.  Even large companies with formal capex programs and detailed payback analysis must order their spending by priority and face a rigorous approval process.  And regardless the size of the company the tooling cost can move a project up or down the capex priority list.
  • Pre-sell a specific number of units:
    • This option is potentially riskier because it brings in subjective sales and marketing analysis and relies on brand familiarity to leverage customer support to raise capital. If the project and the pre-sell is successful, the company avoids an expensive capex outlay or a VC round at the expense of equity.  But if it fails the results could become a version of the dilemma in the above case study.

     In either case, the large amount of cash required for traditional tooling will dictate significant portions of the development process.  But with AM tooling the dynamics of the development process can be radically altered by significantly mitigating traditional headaches of expense and development time.  One example, noted in a different case study, saw a reduction in tooling cost from $54,000 to $1,350 and a reduction in time from 8 weeks to a single day. [i]  And many providers of AM tooling can claim lead time reductions of 40-90%. [ii]  The savings can be so significant that for some new products requiring tooling, what was previously a capital expenditure item subject to multiple levels of corporate review, can in many cases fall under an “expensible” item category without having to utilize the company capital expenditure process. While the percentage of time and money saved will vary from industry to industry and from project to project the manufacturer will realize several benefits:

  • Reduced Lead Time: Reduced labor inputs, reliance on digital files that can be easily modified and the ability to “in-house” some or all the tooling creation on site – or for companies with fewer resources, the establishment of a working relationship with a strong service bureau – lead to dramatic reductions in lead time.
  • Reduced Cost: Reduced labor costs are a common goal in a replacement process but much of the cost reduction in AM tooling is achieved by greatly reduced scrap rates compared to conventional tooling.
  • Functionality Improvements: The use of AM tooling allows tooling designs to be created that were not possible or affordable previously. Free form designs also allow more heat efficient parts with better thermal efficiencies and a large reduction in scrap rates.
  • Customization: AM tooling’s ability to create complex geometries allow for customization of parts up to and including user-specific parts such as medical devices.  The ability to tool at a lower cost and faster turnaround reduces the overall cost and makes innovation or single unit customization possible and more affordable.[iii]

3D Printing Technologies Used in AM Tooling

  For any enterprise looking to utilize AM tooling there are several methods available and affordable today.  And while the purchase of the equipment to produce AM tooling is an option for larger companies, developing a strong working relationship with an AM tooling and 3D printing service bureau will open not only an immediately accessible group of skillsets but also a variety of materials, methods and equipment without costly capital investment in the equipment itself.  The following is a grouping of the most common 3D printing technologies available for use in creation of AM tooling:

  • Binder Jetting: Binder Jetting uses a series of nozzles, similar to print heads in standard ink printers, to print a glue onto a powder.  The layer is formed and then a second layer of powder is deposited and the process is repeated for that layer.  The process continues until the object is complete.  The non-printed powder acts as support for voids and overhangs and must be removed after the model is finished
  • Material Jetting: Material Jetting uses nozzles to deposit material as well.  However, in this case the material itself is the formation of the layer.  A common material used in this process are photopolymers which harden when exposed to light.  A secondary material from an additional print head may be used as a support material for overhangs and difficult geometries.  This secondary material is often water soluble and is removed after the model is complete.  The process allows the use of multiple materials and with varying properties such as flexibility.
  • Material Extrusion: Material extrusion is a miniature version of the process used by larger extruders across a variety of industries.  The melted material, usually a plastic or thermoplastic, is forced through a nozzle and deposited in a layered pattern.  Once the layer is complete either the nozzle moves up or the bedplate moves downward and the next pattern is added.  Support structures made of the same material may or may not be necessary depending on the design but if used must be removed when the model is complete.
  • Powder Bed Fusion: Powder Bed Fusion is like Binder Jetting but in Powder Bed Fusion the layer of powder is struck by focused energy in the form of a laser or electron beam to melt the powder and form the layer.  Once the layer is complete a new layer of powder is deposited and the process continues.
  • Directed Energy Deposit: Directed Energy Deposit also uses high focused energy but in this process the material is melted as it is being deposited.  It also uses a nozzle for dispensing material but unlike Material Extrusion the material is not melted in the nozzle but by a focused  energy beam as it is added to a part or surface.
  • Vat Polymerization: Vat Polymerization uses a light source to cure layers within a container of photopolymer.  The layer can be cured as a single layer using a laser or other directed light source in the desired pattern or, as in some advanced applications, a light projector system may project the entire layer onto the surface and cure the layer all at once.  Support structures may be necessary and are cut away when the model is complete.[iv]

Candidate Categories for AM Tooling:

     There are several categories where AM tooling could be considered as an augmentation or replacement for a traditional tooling process:

  • Plastic Injection Molding: In plastic injection molding there are two 3D printing technologies that can be used for tooling and fixtures.  Post processing of options for the finished tool may include coating or casting.  Material Jetting can be used to create an injection mold tool and.  there are many materials and material combinations of materials available depending on the properties of the plastic being injected.  Powder Bed Fusion is also an option for injection molding tooling, especially when the mold must be heated or placed in an oven.  These molds are usually made from metal powder for products requiring heat application such as parts found in compression molding.



  • Thermoforming: For thermoform tooling the three 3D printing technologies most commonly used are Material Extrusion, Material Jetting and Powder Binding.  The choice of technology may be affected by the gauge of the sheet to be formed or the shape of the end use product.  Coating and sanding as a post process may be needed for the finished part.




  • Metal Stamping: As in thermoforming, the 3D printing technologies commonly used are Material Extrusion, Material Jetting and Powder Binding.  The choice of technology may also depend on the gauge of the metal being stamped.  Examples of end use for metal stamping parts using 3D printed tooling are often found in automotive parts.  Post processing may involve coating, sanding or casting.



  • Metal Casting: Powder/Binder can be used to create sand molds for metal casting for parts used in automotive as well as machine parts.  Both Material Extrusion and SLA (Stereolithography) can be used to print molds for lost core products.  The jewelry industry has employed this process and has extensively adopted the technology into its process flow over the last decade.  Post processing can include sanding or coating.


  • Composite Layup: Composite layup predominantly uses material extrusion 3D printing technology.  As plies are added and then resin or heat cured this 3D printed tool takes advantage of the reduced stress placed upon the mold compared to other processes.  The need for heat resistance is reduced compared to plastic injection molding and metal stamping as the mold’s properties do not require the mold to hold and maintain a molten substance.  And the strength, while important, isn’t as stringently required as there is no striking or pressure applied as in thermoforming or metal stamping.  Post processing for this method may include coating, sanding or filling.


The Paths of AM and the Case for AM Tooling

     Many companies have begun using 3D printing technology in some form.  Most of these companies initially proceed down the path of direct printing.  While there are many uses in product development for direct printing this path is generally confined to low level prototypes and a low volume of finished parts.  They are also limited as they usually cannot rely on the same mass production material nor produce the same mass production shape using AM direct printing to produce a finished part as can processes such as injection molding or thermoforming.  However, AM tooling has become a viable development path for many products.  The tooling allows the enterprise to continue using the required mass production materials that are standard to that industry and the mass production shape is achieved with the same degree of precision and quality as traditional tooling but at a fraction of the cost. 

     One example of an application of AM tooling shown in the chart below resulted in a realization of 80% savings in cost of AM tooling vs traditional tooling and with less amortized units required to produce the break-even point. 

This mitigates investment risk as well as increases profit on units sold over the break-even threshold.  It also opens a path to the introduction of additional products as more capital is available for increased development. 

     As 3D printing technologies mature and improve, the move from mostly direct printing applications to a blended application is producing value added contributions to many markets.  Whereas initial media hype was centered around the notion that large numbers of industries would simply disappear because of 3D printing the move instead has been a search for value added options that allow this still new technology to compliment and improve traditional manufacturing rather than replace it.  As such, the use of AM tooling will be a key factor in building that convergence and allowing for product innovation, product development and new revenue streams due to these benefits.

IC3D has over fifteen years of combined experience to help you with your latest project or production and help provide a working solution for all your enterprise needs.  We can assist you in developing the AM tooling you need from design through production of the tooling itself to lower your development cost and bring your design to life.  From our in-house base of large format printers, developed by IC3D and specifically designed to reduce costs, IC3D is a 3D printing service bureau, consumables supplier and partner in your project from concept to prototyping to completion.

IC3D also produces its own line of 3D filament in ABS, PLA and Nylon and we don’t use recycled material.  Our filament is 100% virgin material that extruded in house in Ohio using strict production standards.   And all IC3D material is backed by a 100% satisfaction guarantee.

IC3Ds superior line of consumables alongside our 3D printing service bureau capabilities and our rapid prototyping services for 3D technology assure that you can create and produce your next project with confidence in both quality and speed.

Check out our line of materials online, or, if you’re looking for consulting, enterprise solutions or design needs, contact us and our staff will be happy to help guide you to the solutions you need.


[i] Tools Without Tooling: How Additive Manufacturing is Changing the Way We Make…Everything.  Stratasys,

[ii] 3D Opportunity in Tooling, by Mark Cotteleer, Jeff Crane, Mark Neier.  Deloitte University Press,

[iii] 3D Opportunity in Tooling, by Mark Cotteleer, Jeff Crane, Mark Neier.  Deloitte University Press,

[iv] Additive Manufacturing Technologies: Technology Introduction and Business Implications, by Brent Stucker, University of Louisville, National Academy of Sciences 2011.

By | 2018-08-07T09:22:54+00:00 January 12th, 2017|Articles|Comments Off on Additive Manufactured (3D Printed) Tooling Comes of Age

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