Mentioned Companies: ADS, AIR, FMC, GE, NKE

3D Printing: Innovation Case Studies

May 10, 2016
8 min read
By: Tasha Keeney, CFA

3D printing is still a young industry. Today, the technology is mainly used to make prototypes but has penetrated only a slice of the end-use parts market, which ARK estimates could be an additional $500 billion opportunity.[1] Manufacturers who choose not to adopt additive manufacturing and use 3D printed parts may very well be left in the dust behind competitors who do. The following case studies illustrate the potential of new 3D printing technology in a variety of industries.



Airbus [AIR]  expects 3D printing to bring 50% in weight savings and 60-70% in cost savings to its A350 aircraft parts. Both Stratasys and Materialise have made 3D printed parts for Airbus’ A350 XWB. Stratasys supplied 1,000 3D printed parts for the aircraft, which has millions of parts in total, many more of which likely will be 3D printed.

Airbus’ A350 XWB also has conducted test flights with Rolls Royce engines containing the largest 3D printed aerospace components ever used. The engines have 48 3D printed aerofoils manufactured with help from the University of Sheffield using Arcam technology. With additive manufacturing, Rolls Royce has cut the time to manufacture an engine by a third.

Airbus also used Autodesk’s generative software to design a new 3D printed aircraft dividing wall. The resulting part was 45% lighter than the current partition and, if used on the full backlog of A320 planes, could save 465,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. For perspective, such savings would result from taking 96,000 cars off the road.



Nike’s Chief Operating Officer, Eric Sprunk, has commented that the 3D printing of entire shoes at home or in Nike stores is not far away. Nike [NKE]  and Adidas [ADS]  already have introduced additive manufacturing techniques—Flyknit and Primeknit, respectively—to transform footwear design and production. Both companies use automated knitting machines to weave the upper of each shoe in one piece. Flyknit reduces labor costs by up to 50% and cuts material usage by up to 20%. Consequently, it has lowered materials waste by more than two million pounds since 2012.[2] In addition, Nike can command a premium price for the shoes, which are lighter and deliver better performance. Furthermore, instead of shipping samples back and forth from Asia, Nike simply has to send design files and code to the factory to print the final product. 

Nike and Adidas also are exploring ways to 3D print shoe soles. Last year, Nike created a pair of concept cleats with 3D printing, allowing for designs that otherwise would be impossible to manufacture. The resulting cleats helped improve speed and traction on turf.  Recently, Adidas forged a relationship with Materialise, New Balance teamed up with 3D Systems, and Under Armour with Autodesk and 3D Systems, to create lines of running shoes with 3D printed midsoles, giving us a glimpse of a future in which shoes will be custom printed for an individual’s foot.



[GE]  has invested $32 million in an additive manufacturing research center, which will open this year,expecting the technology to touch more than 50% of its manufacturing processes within 20 years. The company currently uses over 300 3D printing machines and estimates that GE Aviation will manufacture 100,000 parts additively by 2020, which ARK believes could be an underestimate.[3] GE also uses 3D printing to make fuel nozzles for its LEAP engines. The 3D printed fuel nozzles replace 18 parts with one, resulting in a part that is five times more durable than the previous model. The new design would have been impossible to manufacture with traditional techniques. Also, it is important to note, 3D printing took a year off the normal product development cycle.

During the next five years, GE plans to invest $3.5B in additive manufacturingGE Aviation produces roughly 40 million parts [4] in total per year for new engines, and GE as a whole makes billions of parts per year [5], offering massive potential for additional 3D printed parts.



Ford [FMC]  uses 3D printing to produce molds and prototypes, cutting lead times down from months or weeks to days or hours, and reducing part costs to a fraction of what has heretofore been normal.

Ford has been experimenting with 3D printing for 25 years. Ten years ago, it 3D printed roughly 4,000 prototype parts in total. Today, Ford has five 3D printing centers, each of which can print 20,000 parts per year. Ford uses printers from 3D Systems, ExOne, and Carbon3D. It has 3D printed more than 500,000 parts over the last decade, saving billions of dollars and millions of labor hours. Ford sees a future in which 3D printing will be used at dealerships for replacement parts and will allow customers to design 3D printable customized car accessories.



Perhaps the most rapid transition to 3D printing occurred in the hearing aid industry. Hearing aids used to be generic parts that took 9 separate steps to manufacture. Today, almost all hearing aids are custom, 3D printed parts and production is only 3 steps. In fact, 3D printing was such a perfect fit for the U.S. hearing aid industry that all firms converted to nearly 100% 3D printing in less than 500 days, and not one firm that stuck to traditional manufacturing methods is around today.

In short, the 3D printing revolution is here, and it may change the face of manufacturing sooner than expected.


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