The Holy Grail of Additive Manufacturing - 3D Metal Printing

Project ID: 1737
Principal Investigator: James Weems
Research Topic: Repair and Maintenance
Funded Fiscal Years: 2017
Keywords: None

Research Question

Can Reclamation benefit from the rapid prototyping and part production process provided by 3D metal printing technologies to reduce product lead times and procurement difficulties, remove the need for specialized tooling, reduce costs associated with maintaining extensive warehouse stores of spare parts and/or reduce manufacturing costs of replacement parts?
What is the current "State of the Art" of 3D metal printing and how does Reclamation best position itself to take advantage of this technology, today and into the future?
Where is the 3D metal printing industry headed; 5yr, 10yr, 15 yr time line? What are the key research activities in the works today? Can 3D printing enable Reclamation to reduce its overall energy usage and material costs associated with part fabrication by eliminating the material waste associated with conventional machining processes?
What are the current limitations of metal parts created using the printing process compared to traditional manufacturing processes (e.g. fatigue resistance, ultimate strength)?
What standards currently exist and what are those currently in development? Can Reclamation play a part in these standards development to better prepare for the implementation of this technology in the hydro power industry?
How do the various processes used in metal printing differ (e.g. Selective Laser Sintering, Direct Metal Laser Sintering, Directed Energy Deposition,etc.) and would Reclamation's needs drive the use of one technology over another?
Are there specific materials related to the hydro power industry that would necessarily be needed in order to implement this new technology?

Need and Benefit


On site, on the job, these printers have the potential to eliminate the high prices and long lead times of back-ordered, hard-to-source and even obsolete parts. Reclamation is faced with an aging infrastructure composed of many custom parts and features where spares are no longer available and the tools ans craftsmanship necessary to create them are becoming obsolete themselves. Procurement and contracting of theses aging components is becoming increasingly more difficult. Being reliant on 3rd party sources for some of reclamations key parts and materials puts Reclamation at risk of being incapable of maintaining and repairing equipment in a timely and economical fashion.

The adoption of 3D metal printing of large scale components in other industries such as aerospace and automotive indicates the technology is proven and reliable. However, the demands of the hydro power industry sometimes exceed those of other industries and thus research is needed to determine if this technology can be leveraged both safely and effectively within the hydro power sector.


Costs savings of up to 70% have been achieved by some companies using 3D metal printing through lower shipping and packaging costs related to overseas parts suppliers, less human resource involved and cheaper and sometimes more reliable raw materials.

Zero Storage Costs - Why should you have warehouses filled up with stocks of your products if you can create them according to demand? Imagine a 100% reduction in personnel costs and and utilities associated with the storage and upkeep of on-site part storage.
Less waste - Manufacturing metal and plastic objects in particular is usually a wasteful process with chunky parts and a lot of surplus material. In some cases, up to 90% of the material is being cut away and no longer useful. Making a similar object using additive manufacturing not only uses less energy but also reduces waste to a minimum. And sometimes, the finished 3D printed product can be up to 60% lighter compared to the machined part but still as sturdy according to the Economist. Significant cost savings can be achieved in this way and less waste also means a lower impact on the environment.
Better quality - From raw material imperfections to surface hardening, negative attributes caused by machining processes can impart fatal flaws on parts created through more traditional methods if not properly treated in using some type of post production process like heat treating or annealing which only adds additional time, labor and energy costs in making the part. However, using 3D metal printing and the art of additive manufacturing a part can be assembled layer by layer to achieve perfection through a full control of where each layer is going and how it fits with the rest.
Without a means to rapidly replace failed equipment, prolonged outages may occur affecting both power deliver and irrigation water deliveries to Reclamation's customers.

Contributing Partners

Contact the Principal Investigator for information about partners.

Research Products

Bureau of Reclamation Review

The following documents were reviewed by experts in fields relating to this project's study and findings. The results were determined to be achieved using valid means.

3D Metal Printing (final, PDF, 1.2MB)
By Michael Weems, Erin Foraker, Eric Bessette
Report completed on February 15, 2020

This research product summarizes the research results and potential application to Reclamation's mission.

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Last Updated: 6/22/20