3D printing for engineers!

This report aims to provide an insight look into the current state of 3D printing for engineers. It is aimed at (mainly mechanical) engineers, engineering companies and R&D departments. The central question therefore is:

How does desktop 3D printing add value for engineers at this moment in time and what needs to be happen in order for them to be able to add even more value?

The main findings are that engineers are currently using desktop 3D printing in improving design and quality, saving costs and time, thus increasing time to market and getting early feedback.

The outcomes in this report are based on roughly 110 surveys, filled out by clients of Leapfrog that consider themselves engineers. For a better understanding of the outcomes, Leapfrog also interviewed 10 of their engineering clients, some of them which are highlighted in the case studies.

3D printing for engineers

To be able to add more value in the (near) future, a few things need to happen. Besides the need for faster and more reliable hardware, engineers indicate that for them, the key is in the materials. The more materials they can print with, the more applications it can be used for. In addition, we have found that engineers need to make the mindswitch in even considering 3D printing as an option for prototyping, production and maintenance. Secondly, they need to make a switch in thinking in how to design for 3D printing.

Introducing added value of desktop 3D printing for engineers

The past two years have seen a major surge in awareness regarding 3D printing. While a few years ago, 3D printing as a technique was highly unfamiliar to the masses, the ongoing media hype has caused unprecedented interest and awareness regarding 3D printing. Even today, 3D printing continues to be an exciting news topic, causing the hype to overshadow the actual added value of 3D printing.

In the relatively early stage of adoption of this production and prototyping technique, it is important to exchange knowledge and experience. This leads to an increased understanding of the possibilities of the technique, as well as highlighting room for development.

For that reason, Leapfrog 3D Printers is continuously investigating what desktop 3D printers are being used for and sharing the outcomes. This report focuses on the current state of the adoption of desktop 3D printing by the engineering industry. It is mainly based on surveys and interviews with leapfrog’s own clients and partners. The central question is:

How does desktop 3D printing add value for engineers at this moment in time and what needs to be happen in order for them to be able to add even more value? 

Before reading this report it is important to understand that it is focused specifically on desktop 3D printers as opposed to industrial 3D printers. So before discussing the results, it is important to first make the distinction between desktop 3D printers (the focus of this report) and industrial 3D printers, showing that however small and affordable, desktop 3D printers are used in professional settings. Next, we will go over the general added value of the 3D printing technique. Finally, before diving into the research results, we need to get an insight in the current state of the engineering sector to truly appreciate the specific added value of 3D printing for this industry.

Desktop versus industrial 3D printers

This research by Leapfrog 3D Printers focuses on desktop 3D printers, deliberately distinguishing them from industrial printers, which are out of scope in this research. Industrial printers are here defined as 3D printers that lean more toward enabling additive manufacturing than towards rapid prototyping, use a wide variety of printing techniques and materials and imply a much larger investment than desktop 3D printers.

3D printing for engineers

Desktop 3D printers are those relatively small, affordable (generally noted to be under €5000) and easy to use 3D printers that utilize affordable materials such as polymers.

Currently, most of these desktop 3D printers use fused filament fabrication (FFF), a 3D printing technique that uses polymers as printing material. Most of these polymers are quite affordable: the most popular materials ABS and PLA cost between €20 and €40 per 750 grams

3D printing for engineers

Desktop 3D printers should by no means, be mistaken for toys or for hobby machines only. Although some of them are used in a hobbyist or an early adopter consumer environment, this report shows that they are used in very professional settings to add very real business value.

3D printing for engineers

Undeniably, the current state of desktop 3D printing still has some limitations and will undergo rapid development in the coming years. However, already today, desktop 3D printers are used as professional devices that have proved to add value in professional settings. At this moment, these affordable type of printers act as a catalyst behind the adoption of 3D printing for businesses and education.

General overview of 3D printing and its added value

Whichever 3D print technique is used, the main principle of 3D printing is that objects are being constructed layer by layer. While doing so, the material melts together, either by using a hot nozzle (FFF technique, used in most desktop 3D printers), laser, UV light, or heat. Input is always a 3D object designed in a CAD program, or a scanned object. This design file is transformed, using so-called slicing software, into a printable file (g-code).

3D printing for engineers

In this section we will highlight the general advantages 3D printing can bring over more traditional production techniques, such as injection molding or subtractive manufacturing. Then, in the section after that, we will discuss the insights of our research, specifically focused on the added of desktop 3D printing for engineers.

In general, 3D printing offers the following advantages:

1. Cost and time efficiency in design iteration:

3D printing allows you to quickly prototype designs and make several iterations to it. Even when for the final product, you will need a specific material that is not 3D printable yet, you can use the prototype to check for design and function. Desktop 3D printing materials are affordable, so costs of making a prototype will often be below €30 instead of thousands of euros. Most slicing programs, which is the software that turns your CAD file into a 3D printable file, allow you to calculate how much material you will need to use, so you can determine exact costs.

2. Complete design freedom:

The 3D printing technique gives designers full freedom in design. The reason for that is the layer by layer construction method. In the design process there is no need to think of the restrictions of tools necessary to create different shapes anymore, like with molding or subtractive manufacturing. Material simply gets added by the 3D printer. Especially engineers, who deal with a lot of complexity, have much to win from this. However, as we will see later on in the report, this does not mean that designing for 3D printing is necessarily easy. In fact engineers will have to factor in other requirements, such as the restrictions of the materials and ‘overhang’ (in FFF technique, it is impossible to print mid-air, so either angles have to be made less steap or allowance for a support structure has to be made), which is illustrated in the following case.

3. No waste

3D printing makes shaping objects possible without having to make molds or without the necessity to use subtractive manufacturing in which material has to be removed. This means that waste of material gets minimalized, which in turn causes cost savings.


3D printing for engineersIn this case we are zooming in on an example that shows that designing for dekstop 3D printing is different than designing for injection molding. The machine part below would normally be injection molded. However, if you do not require large batches of it, or if you are in a prototype phase, you could cheaply print it on your desktop 3D printer. For a FFF based 3D printer it is hard to print sections that overhang or are not attached to a base. But with a dual extrusion 3D printer you can print a different material to serve as support. PVA for example, is a water soluble material used for support of the overhanging parts that are mid-air. After it is printed you can just wash it away with water and it will leave no traces on your main model.

4. Production: when you need it, where you need it

3D printing makes it possible to obtain a designed object on the spot with almost no leadtime. To make sure somebody across the world receives the same part, all you need to do is send the digital file.

5. Equal cost per object

3D printing allows you to print in small batches when and where needed. When using the same material each object will costs exactly the same amount – this in contrary to injection molding, where scale brings down costs.

The added value of desktop 3D printing for engineers – The current state of the engineering value chain

To understand the added value of desktop 3D printing for engineers, it is important to understand how engineers currently add value. The figure below demonstrates a simplified standard process most engineers follow at the moment.

Desktop 3D printing can add major value to this process in terms of cost savings, time savings and optimization of design and functionality. In the next chapters we will follow the process chain, to show the added value in the design process.

The added value of desktop 3D printing for engineers

In this section of the report, we will present research findings as we follow the general R&D / engineering process chain as laid out in figure .. This structural approach will help us to get insights into the current added value of desktop 3D printing. Each finding will be illustrated by several real life business cases.

Design Phase

Although goals in this phase differ widely per company, in general they can be filtered down to the following:

  • Become clear on exact needs from management and/or client.
  • Research different design solutions.
  • Translate needs and requirements into a design, taking into account cost constraints, requirements for functionality, production constraints, weight etc.
  • Convincing clients and/or management of the right design.

Desktop 3D printing can be employed to help reach all goals mentioned above. It is implemented in the research process as well as used as an aid to verify design, to convince stakeholders of a design solution, and to optimize design by limiting the constraints that apply to a design.

3D printing for engineers

To give an idea on the current adaption of 3D printing for making prototypes, here follow some percentages: about 52% of Leapfrogs’ respondents that consider themselves engineers indicate they use their 3D printer to make prototypes. 63% of them filled out ‘speed of getting a part / prototype’ as a major added value of desktop 3D printing. 40% mentioned ‘costs savings’ and 51% mentioned ‘detecting design errors’ as an added value of 3D printing.

Possibility to verify designs in a very early phase.

3D printing is generally well-known for its rapid prototyping abilities. More and more engineers discover how the desktop technique can help to revolutionize the design process. Throughout our research, we found that the ability to do prototyping in house through a desktop 3D printer, is helping businesses to save considerable amounts of time and money. This is partly because the process does not have to be outsourced anymore. When using oursourcing, it could take up to a few weeks to be able to test a design in practise. Besides being long, this process was also relatively expensive, taking into account all oursourcing costs. With desktop 3D printing, it only takes a couple of hours and a few euro’s to see if a design needs some corrections or modifications. Already in the earliest stage of the engineering process, 3D printing decreases developing time and helps to save costs.

In addition, the ability to prototype often, fast and cheaply, allows engineers to test designs very early on in the design process. This will help save costs and time downstream in the test and manufacturing phases. It also serves as an important aid in avoiding errors. Engineers that use 3D printing are able to ‘fail fast’ in the design process and to receive early market feedback. Since prototypes can be quickly produced at low costs, the product can be held and viewed by entire design teams, assemble teams and marketing teams as well as by clients to get quick feedback. With more desktop 3D printers in place, geographical remote locations can be bridged by just sending over the digital file. This significantly decreases risk of implementing a part or bringing a product to market.

Optimizing design

Besides avoiding errors and delays at the earliest moment possible in the process chain, desktop 3D printing can also help to optimize design.

3D printing allows for the creation of an unrivaled complexity of shapes, which can be optimized to suit any type of purpose. Whether that is to save costs by minimizing the amount of material used, or to optimize fit into a machine, desktop 3D printing can help to achieve these goals in the early design phase. When you consider desktop 3D printers to be a catalyst behind the adoption of 3D printing in general, and perceive it as an easy and affordable way for a company to get started with this technique, desktop 3D printers help engineers to think of designing in a new manner. Design will encounter fewer restrictions, allowing for virtually endless possibilities in shapes. In addition, the affordable technique allows designers to study their own designs better, which leads to more complexity in a shorter amount of time. Ideas can be verified, built and improved faster.


A big advantage of 3D printing is that designers experience more possibilities with making objects strong with lighter structures. This increases functionality and saves material and money. Here follow a few examples.

Polyflex is a leading Israeli prepress production specialist and designed a machine that produces gravure plates. This machine runs since April 2014 on a 3D printed cog wheel. Because of the 3D printing technique Polyflex could improve this part. Instead of making it solid they could design ribs, making the wheel lighter and producing ventilation.

Both the manager from the France aerospace company as well as Marco Vreeling from Fokker indicated that reducing weight is an important theme in the aerospace industry. Being able to design lightweight parts with 3D printing therefore is an enormous asset.

The Shell Eco-Marathon project of the Euregiorunners. 3D printing for engineersThe Shell Eco-Marathon project of the Euregiorunners

Another industry that greatly benefits from minimal weight parts is the automotive industry. It explores new design opportunities using a desktop 3D printer. An example is a car, produced by a group of students of Zuyd Hogeschool in the Netherlands who participated in the Shell Eco-Marathon this year. They were challenged to create an extremely energy efficient car in an innovative way. The chosen design contained shapes that couldn’t have been executed in a conventional way. According to the students the 3D printing technique was a condition to make the production possible. On top of that it turned out to be a lot cheaper to use 3D printing. The most important cost saving decision was to 3D print the mold for the outside of the car instead of making it out of wood. The mold turned out to be five times lighter in weight and saved 75% in material costs.

Convincing management and clients

Many respondents indicated the desktop 3D printer is a helpful tool in convincing clients and management of the effectiveness of their design. Where before engineers had to show and explain their designs with either 2D or 3D drawings, now they can cheaply 3D print them. This gives clients and managers a better image of the final productI, improving communication with respect to everyone’s wishes.

Convincing clients or management is one of the main added values for about 20% of all respondents à staafdiagram.

The fact that it is possible to get a physical, moving, functional object, which people can feel and study from all sides, increases the understanding of the design. Since miscommunication or misdesign can now be solved in an early stage of the design process, 3D printing optimizes that process and speeds up the engineering process as a whole.

The case study below illustrates how the use of a (desktop) 3D printer can actually help make money by convincing clients:


Thomas Mooren from Engineered to Race, an engineering company specialized in improving and developing all parts of race cars, says the biggest value of making models with desktop 3D printers for them is that prototypes make it easier to convince clients to go for their proposed solution. “When I show my clients a drawing, they do not always grasp the effectiveness of the designed parts. Now, I can give them a prototype that they can hold and sometimes even temporary use in their car to experience the difference. One prototype costs maybe a few euro’s to create on a desktop 3D printer, however it helps me to land contracts with great commercial value.

Mr. Mooren printed gearbox paddles, including wheelbearings, to make the automatic gearbox and thus the movements of the racecar more controllable. 

More information on www.engineeredtorace.com

The new 3d pringter the Leapfrog Creatr HS

CreatrCreatr Highspeed Starter Package. 3D printing for engineers

Source: www.lpfrg.com


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