How to Optimize Design for Additive Manufacturing

Written By: Cat McClintock
  • 9/4/2018
  • Read Time : 2.5 min.
Plastic part produced via additive manufacturing

Whether you’re using it for rapid prototyping or production applications, additive manufacturing (AM) promises a host of benefits, including faster time-to-market, reduced costs, and the ability to personalize and customize designs.

Metal pieces created with additive manufacturing

Formlabs displays a collection of metal parts produced via additive manufacturing at LiveWorx 18

But if it sounds too good to be true, it might be. Especially for those who don’t adjust their approach to design. What worked for traditional production, like injection molding or CNC machining, isn’t going to hit the jackpot when it comes to 3D printing benefits. 

To fully capitalize on the potential of this emerging technology, engineers need to adopt a new “design for additive manufacturing” mindset, completely changing the way they’ve historically come at common design problems.

The Constraints Have Changed

For instance, most engineers have been trained over the years to think about specific parts and shapes in a certain way, usually limiting their creative sensibilities with the reality of what’s possible using familiar molding and subtractive production methods.

Undercuts, internal channels, even fillet placement are important design constraints with traditional manufacturing practices, but they simply don’t hold the same weight when using 3D printing technologies. In fact, the beauty of AM technology is that you can create complex and intricate organic-shaped geometries that aren’t limited by traditional parameters and constraints, leading to greater design freedom.

It’s understandable that an engineer, especially a seasoned one, might have a hard time wrapping their brain around such an approach. . But new advances in design software can quickly reboot anybody’s thinking.

Embracing the Freedom of Generative Design

One way to spark the creative juices and embrace greater design freedom is through the use of generative design tools like topology optimization.

By leveraging solutions like Creo Topology Optimization Extension, for instance, engineers can establish a defined set of objectives and constraints, and the software will automatically determining the best design.

Topology optimization-created design

A part designed using Creo Topology Optimization Extension

The end results are organic, complex parametric shapes that achieve critical design objectives such as a reduction in weight or parts.

Additionally, by leveraging simulation tools within their design software, engineers can test each proposed design against a set of criteria, allowing for faster iteration and experimentation. This is especially useful for those who feel pressure to achieve goals in shorter and shorter periods of time.

Rendered design created with topology optimization

This rendering emphasizes how difficult the same part might be to produce with injection molding or subtractive manufacturing.

From Solids to Lattice Structures

Freeform shapes aren’t the only upside to embracing a new design for AM mentality. The combination of AM processes and generative design tools, especially those delivered within the context of a CAD environment, can lead to optimized, integrated lattice structures that provide more strength while using less materials. Again, with the right set of tools, engineers can simply define their criteria and design constraints and let the software come up with the optimized lattice structures.

And again, in-CAD simulation capabilities can help engineers analyze and test the resulting design from their familiar design tool, so they can easily iterate until they achieve the desired outcomes.

Lattice structure created digitally for additive manufacturing

A part designed using automatically generated lattice structures. Note that the thickness and density of the lattices change within the model for optimal weight and strength.

Parts Are the New Assemblies

A design for AM mindset also means reconsidering how you think about parts and even whole assemblies. One of the hallmarks of the AM process is the ability to consolidate what were previously separate parts into a single component, doing away with complex assembly and integration processes.

In one of the most publicized examples of this type of design freedom, GE redesigned its LEAP jet engine nozzle from 18 separate components to a single part, achieving a significant reduction in weight and increasing performance targets due to the streamlined shape and complex internal lattice structures. 

Making the Most of AM

AM technologies present a real opportunity for engineers to achieve some pretty lofty design goals. But without a wholesale evaluation of traditional design conventions and a willingness to adopt a new design for AM mindset, there’s risk of leaving a lot of what’s good on the table and only reaping a fraction of what’s possible.

More Reasons to Use Creo

Are your most innovative products getting to market fast enough?  Find out what more your design software should be doing for you. Download the free e-book, An Engineer's Guide to the Renaissance of Product Design.


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About the Author

Cat McClintock

Cat McClintock edits the Creo and Mathcad blogs for PTC.  She has been a writer and editor for 15+ years,  working for CAD, PDM, ERP, and CRM software companies. Prior to that, she edited science journals for an academic publisher and aligned optical assemblies for a medical device manufacturer. She holds degrees in Technical Journalism, Classics, and Electro-Optics. She loves talking to PTC customers and learning about the interesting work they're doing and the innovative ways they use the software.