Schniepp says that even with shorter tool lives, the speed to produce 3D-printed tooling could lead to a shift away from traditional manufacturing programs that use metal tooling to produce thousands and thousands of parts. “You can now economically produce 50 of one product and then 100 of something different, versus locking yourself into producing the same product for the next 30 years,” he says.

What’s on the Horizon?

3D-printed composite tooling is in its infancy. Schniepp estimates that less than 100 of Stratasys’ 50,000 installed industrial printers are being used for composite tooling, while Kunc surmises that there are only about 20 large-scale 3D printers installed throughout the United States.

As a result, adopters of the new technology are simultaneously using it and helping to develop it. Andrew Bader, co-founder of service bureau AES, admits that while the company recently reached a milestone of 300 prints, about half of the company’s business is manufacturing tools and parts for customers and the other half is working on the technical process to improve the printing technology and applications. “We’re working with brand new technology,” Bader explains. “We always laugh and say, ‘There’s no manual for this!”

Despite the growing pains, 3D-printed composite tooling is on the rise. All the major aerospace companies have 3D-printed tooling initiatives underway, and many newly purchased large-scale additive machines are being used to print tooling. Two out of three of the LSAM installed to date have been purchased for tooling – one for sand casting and another for aerospace tooling. “The technology is spreading on its own,” observes Kunc. In other words, the “killer application” is taking off.