We Need a Sweeping 3D Printing Agenda, Now

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February 13, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: February 13 on

At Sandia National Laboratories, an unusual thing has happened. Researchers 3D printed a massive mold for manufacturing wind turbine blades.

The project is a collaboration with the leading manufacturing laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and TPI Composites that aims to dramatically reduce the time and cost of developing new wind energy technology. Sandia has been in the wind business for four decades, and during that time it has found producing prototypes can be a real drain on time and resources. By 3D printing the 13-meter mold directly from a digital design, Sandia says it saved more than a year in production time.

The Lab”s success is just one example of how government agencies and related organizations are increasingly using 3D printing for prototyping and parts production. As other countries embrace the technology at a pace that will soon match our own, 3D printing will become a stronger focus in the public sector.

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing because it involves digitally layering materials over-and-over again to produce finished items, has been around for decades. It has been used by the various branches of the U.S. military to construct mission-critical parts on demand. It has also been used at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to create customized prosthetics for veterans. And several Food and Drug Administration centers have been busily qualifying various 3D-printed medical devices for public use, including surgical instruments  as well as orthopedic and cranial implants and dental restorations that can be individually made to fit perfectly to a person”s body.

Until recently, the public sector’s embrace of 3D printing has been mild at best. This changed a few years ago when new printers were introduced and started producing quality parts exponentially faster at a fraction of the cost. Along the way, the types of materials used in these printers also expanded from solely plastics to include metals and concrete. As manufacturers express more interest in the technology, the palette of material properties continues to expand.

…the U.S. should consider implementing a broader strategic 3D printing program that lays out a vision for the future. It should set specific strategic goals aimed at producing not only replacement parts but full production items the government needs.

We are already seeing examples of this. For instance, a Los Angeles-based startup called Relativity Space says it wants to revolutionize how rockets are made by 3D printing them. Oak Ridge researchers  3D printed a classic Shelby Cobra automobile at the Department of Energy’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility using the Big Area Additive Manufacturing machine. There are also discussions happening around everything from houses for homeless and vulnerable populations to submarines, surface ships and specialized  vehicles that deliver Navy SEALS to dangerous combat areas.

Related Programs

First 3-D Printed Wind-Blade Mold, Energy-Saving Nanoparticles Earn Sandia National Awards, Sandia National Laboratories, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sandia National Laboratories has won the Federal Laboratory Consortium for Technology Transfer’s national 2018 Technology Focus Award for designing the first wind turbine blades fabricated from a 3-D printed mold, which could dramatically shorten the time and expense of developing new wind energy technology.

The labs also won FLC’s Excellence in Technology Transfer Award for advanced nanomaterial window films that could save consumers billions in energy costs each year.

Sandia National Laboratories collaborated with Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility Team on a 3-D printed wind turbine blade mold. (Photo courtesy of Brittany Cramer, Oak Ridge National Laboratory) Click on the thumbnail for a high-resolution image.

“These two deserving collaborations align well with Sandia’s mission,” said Jackie Kerby Moore, manager of Technology and Economic Development and the labs’ representative to the consortium. “They strengthen our nation’s energy security and resilience by lowering the cost of energy technologies.”

Innovations in Manufacturing, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

3D Printed Shelby Cobra – Next-generation manufacturing takes on a 50 year old icon as ORNL researchers transform this classic sports car into a 3D- printed laboratory on wheels. Additive manufacturing enables the seamless integration of advanced technologies with design flexibility and modularity while providing a platform for rapid development and evaluation. The printed car incorporates “plug and play” components such as new engine, battery, and fuel cell technologies; hybrid system designs; and power electronics and wireless charging systems, allowing researchers to easily and quickly test out innovative ideas in a driving laboratory.


Founded in late 2015, Relativity is creating an entirely reimagined process to iterate and scale rockets quickly and build the future of humanity in space. They are an orbital launch company looking to deploy and resupply satellite constellations at significantly reduced cost and time. With their new process for building and flying rockets, they hope to redefine how we access space. Relativity”s technology builds toward a long-term goal of 3D printing the first rocket made on Mars.

Related Report

3D Printing: Ensuring Manufacturing Leadership in the 21st Century, hp & ATKearney, 2017

Executive Summary: We are in the early days of a 4th Industrial Revolution, a far-reaching analog-to-digital shift that will completely transform the $12 trillion global manufacturing industry.

It will fundamentally change the way we conceive, design, produce, distribute, and consume nearly everything, with enormous impact to jobs, industries, and economies. It’s a digital industrial revolution spearheaded by the accelerating growth of 3D printing, and its leaders will be defined by their ability to harness the full power of this truly disruptive technology.

In manufacturing’s all-digital near-future, designers will create entirely new categories of products, unconstrained by traditional processes as the line between idea and physical reality erodes. And manufacturers, no longer tethered to overseas factories, will move physically closer to the consumer, shortening supply chains with the newfound ability to custom-produce anything, anytime, anywhere.

Four to 6 trillion (USD) of the global economy will be disrupted and redistributed in the next 10 years due to the accelerating growth of 3D printing, according to a new study conducted by A.T. Kearney.

Jobs will shift around the globe, with manufacturing jobs migrating to places where 3D printing is fully embraced. Countries with strong existing consumer bases will be able to leverage those bases into opportunities for job creation. Countries with strong existing manufacturing economies will need to adopt 3D printing quickly to secure the future growth of their workforces. And the new 3D manufacturing workforce will be one that’s skilled-up, tech-savvy, and highly in-demand as it helps to push their nations to the forefront of global technology and innovation leadership.

Those who fail to act will risk securing their share of a historic new wave of value creation across industries and continents. The World Economic Forum has estimated the overall value of the global digital transformation to business and society across all industries at $100 trillion in the next ten years alone.

The 3D printing industry is currently at a technological and economic inflection point that is opening the door to a digital reinvention of the worldwide manufacturing sector, and the countries who act to embrace it now will secure their place at the table of global leadership and innovation for generations to come.

The ability to create, maintain, or revitalize a manufacturing economy. Driving a global shift of this magnitude by leveraging 3D printing technology and applications will rely heavily on public / private partnerships.

Comprehensive government engagement is required for nations to realize the vast economic potential of 3D printing in the fully-digitized new world. It is imperative that federal, state, and local policymakers drive three key policy catalysts to build a successful and sustainable 3D printing ecosystem: Education, Adoption, and Incentives.

Leaders need to focus on creating new educational programs and incentives for engineers to learn 3D design, and to train educators to teach future generations of innovators. By supporting R&D in their own leading educational institutions, countries will foster the growth of broad 3D print capabilities and ecosystems to advance their competitive positions in the global marketplace.

Building incentives to accelerate the adoption of 3D printing, especially at the state and city level, will spur development of a complete 3D ecosystem that will attract manufacturing to their geographies, create robust new markets, and ensure leadership and prosperity in the 4th Industrial Revolution and beyond.