Six Ways Your CAD System Should Be Supporting Additive Manufacturing

Written by: Dave Martin

Traditional manufacturing techniques, such as CNC machining, place a lot of restrictions on the geometry that can be created. Cutting tools have to be able to get to the areas where you want to remove material, and often, that’s either not possible or requires multiple setups and complicated fixtures that significantly increase the cost of manufacturing.

But with Additive Manufacturing (AM) – commonly known as 3D printing – you can create more complex geometry and products with fewer components. For example, with AM, you could more easily design a model that needs fewer fasteners (studies show that fasteners may compose only 5% of a bill of materials, but account for 70% of the labor cost).

Quote from David Martin

Does your CAD package provide what you need to support your 3D printing objectives? Here are six tools that your design software should have to help you realize the advantages of AM:

1. Lattice Generation

Because additive manufacturing can create shapes that couldn’t be produced by traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques, you can now design with structures like lattices. By varying their size and shape, you can reduce weight but still provide strength. Less material (compared to a traditional solid) means lower material costs and typically better performance, especially in fields like aerospace and defense.

2. Lattice Analysis

Once you’ve incorporated lattices into your 3D model, you need to validate your design using structural analysis and simulation. You wouldn’t want to model the lattices with solid elements in your finite element analysis (FEA) package; the mesh would be too complicated and the solving time would be impractical. You want a CAD package that automatically applies simulation idealizations like beam elements, mass elements, and 2D shells to your model as appropriate to allow for efficient analysis that you can perform in conjunction with the design process.

3. Support for Plastics and Metals

Many designers and engineers are familiar with 3D printing with polymers and plastics. In the past decade, additive manufacturing techniques such as direct metal laser sintering, selective laser melting, and binder jetting have become available to expand the range of materials available for AM beyond polymers to include metals.

This provides great benefits to manufacturing because tooling, especially for castings, is expensive and requires long lead times. With metal printing, development and procurement time can be reduced from months to days.

Small 3D printed items in metal

4. Tray Configuration

You want to print your model. Will it fit in the tray of your 3D printer? Can you print multiple models at the same time? What will the support material look like?

In the past, you would have to export STL files from your CAD package, import the data into the printer’s utility software, and set up for printing. Your CAD package should allow you to set up your tray assembly with as many components as can fit, assign materials and colors, and save the tray assembly for reuse.

5. Connection to 3D Printers

Data translation between design, analysis, and manufacturing has historically been one of the biggest wastes of engineers’ time. Your computer and desktop applications can connect directly to 2D printers; your CAD package should be able to connect directly to a 3D printer.

Are you still developing your in-house additive manufacturing capabilities? What if you don’t have 3D printers? Your CAD package should support outsourcing your print jobs to a service bureau.

6. Topology Optimization

Practically every industry wants products that are as light as possible while meeting their intended objectives for strength. In the past, this involved multiple rounds of iteration using an engineer’s intuition regarding where material could be removed – and the engineer was restricted by what could be removed using traditional subtractive manufacturing techniques.

Topology optimization integrates analysis parametrically with the design process. You define your loads, boundary conditions, and design constraints (e.g., stress, displacement), and it optimizes for your mass and shape. It automatically computes what works best for performance, instead of you designing traditional prismatic shapes that fit your manufacturing methods. As such, topology optimization is the perfect partner for additive manufacturing.


Additive manufacturing can benefit you throughout the entire product development process and life cycle, from prototyping, through design reviews, into production, and even refurbishing used parts during maintenance. The full extent of the benefits of additive manufacturing are still being discovered. If you’re not investigating and investing in this leap in power and capability, jump in today – just make sure that your CAD package can make the leap with you.

Tags: CAD Retail and Consumer Products Connected Devices

About the Author

Dave Martin

Dave Martin is a Creo, Windchill, and PTC Mathcad instructor and consultant. He is the author of the books “Top Down Design in Creo Parametric,” “Design Intent in Creo Parametric,” and “Configuring Creo Parametric,” all available at He can be reached at

Dave currently works as the configuration manager for Elroy Air, which develops autonomous aerial vehicles for middle-mile delivery. Previous employers include Blue Origin, Amazon Prime Air, Amazon Lab126, and PTC. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and is a former armor officer in the United States Army Reserves.