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Rochester firms embrace 3D printing for multiple purposes

Additive manufacturing breaks barriers of traditional 3D method

Rochester firms embrace 3D printing for multiple purposes

Additive manufacturing breaks barriers of traditional 3D method

Some of the 3D printed fixtures made by L3Harris at their location on Jefferson Road. (Photos provided)

Firms are using 3D printing to create unique tools, parts and other objects right here in Rochester, allowing for new approaches to manufacturing that increase efficiency and provide more material and design flexibility than was possible as recently as a decade ago.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, describes the construction of objects from computer models. Traditional, or subtractive, manufacturing carves a product or part out of an existing material, while 3D printing builds a product or part by adding plastics, metals or other materials.

In the earlier days of 3D printing, the technology was used almost exclusively for prototyping but in recent years manufacturers have started using printers for parts, tooling and other applications as the technology has improved. Rochester-based manufacturers say 3D printing has led them to change their approach to design, manufacturing and assembly over the past decade.

While 3D printing can be used in a variety of applications, local manufacturers said one of the most critical current uses is for tools, workstations and other assembly solutions.

Jessica DeGroote Nelson, director of technology and strategy at Optimax, said the firm started utilizing 3D printing in the mid-2010s and the technology has frequently been used to create tools and fixtures for the manufacturing and assembly process.


“Right now, we use it a lot for tooling, fixturing and for holding a lot of things,” DeGroote Nelson said of Optimax’s most frequent use of 3D printing. “At least once a week we’re printing a tool.”

DeGroote Nelson, who helps facilitate the company’s strategic planning process and oversees research and development, said the technology reduces turnaround time, allowing tools to be printed more quickly than traditional machining.

“You can print it overnight and the next morning you have your tool,” she said, adding that 3D printing has allowed for increased flexibility and rapid prototyping, decreasing the time it takes to acquire a unique or intricate tool.

DeGroote compared it to drawing a picture versus creating it in software. In the software version you can edit the existing document and just reprint, rather than completing redrawing the entire image.

Some of the more innovative work with 3D printing at Optimax involves collaborations with other firms to use additively manufactured materials as optical substrates, DeGroote Nelson said, noting in the future those could be either mirror substrates or transmissive substrates used for lenses.

“We haven’t hit primetime yet but there have been a couple projects that we’ve worked on for additively manufactured substrates that we’ve polished for customers,” DeGroote Nelson said.

One of those applications could utilize additive manufacturing to create lightweight mirror substrates, something Optimax is working on with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and other partners. DeGroote Nelson said significant progress is being made in the development of gradient index material lenses at various companies and research institutes, something that could provide an added degree of freedom for optical design and more lightweight, unique structures.

L3Harris is also utilizing 3D printing in a variety of different ways at both its Rochester locations and elsewhere within the company. Ryan Esse, advanced manufacturing lead for the L3Harris’ communication systems segment, said the Jefferson Road plant is now in its second generation of printers roughly a decade after first acquiring the technology.


“It was a very interesting journey,” Esse said. “We initially bought them just to do some hand tools, fixtures, jigs and we started with one printer and within six months the one printer wasn’t enough, so we got a second one. Six months later that wasn’t enough, so we got another one, and now we pretty much run three full time.”

Esse said L3Harris creates both manufacturing engineering and test engineering fixtures and aids — largely using the technology to aid in the assembly and testing processes — in the Jefferson Road plant. Esse said additive manufacturing is far more efficient than traditional subtractive manufacturing when it comes to designing a part and sending it out to be machined.

“It was incredibly time consuming, and you had to wait a week to get something back,” Esse said of the old process. “Now if you can design it, they can print it.”

Additive manufacturing allows for the creation of unique tools with special features. It can create a single part for what, in the past, might have required multiple pieces. Unique holding and positioning fixtures are among the top uses for 3D printing at the Jefferson Road site, Esse said, noting the technology is also used for special hand tools used for assembly.

Esse said 3D printing has also enabled the plant to changeover from one product to the next much more efficiently.

“If we’re building product A and then our lines change to product B, being able to have these fixtures really allows you to change over a workstation quickly and be a lot more efficient,” he said, adding the technology has also allowed the firm to develop efficient assembly processes alongside product development — something that has helped launch new products faster.

An employee demonstrates  the additive method of 3D manufacturing. (Photo provided)

Becky Borrelli is a principal fellow at L3Harris who leads strategy and development in the company’s space and airborne systems imaging segment. She recalled that additive manufacturing was mostly used for prototyping of plastic components when she started at the firm about 10 years ago.

L3Harris’s imaging segment works largely on space-based imaging systems like the satellites that capture images for applications such as Google Earth and the integration of primary mirror segments and optical testing for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Over the past decade that has changed dramatically, though slowly, in part due to the firm’s work with space-based imaging systems, which require specialized materials.


“Properties like coefficient of thermal expansion are very important to us, so if the temperature changes on the unit we have to trust that our support hardware and things like that are not going to expand and contract at high rates or it will mess up the imaging of our systems,” Borrelli said, noting variables as small as a single micron can cause errors.

“We’re dealing with extreme levels of precision in extreme environments.”

Due to the rigorous demands and low accessibility of space-based technology once it’s launched, Borrelli said, the industry is risk averse and slow to accept change in some ways. With additive manufacturing, L3Harris has had to slowly show customers the advantages of the new technology and ensure they’re comfortable with the materials before moving on to new designs.

L3Harris has developed proprietary formulations for metal structures to hold hardware in place, and helped develop ways to print specialty materials, including one called Invar, which has a very low coefficient of thermal expansion, or CTE.

Much of the focus on space-based applications involves utilizing lightweight components that can withstand the space environment. Borrelli said 3D printing enables structures that can have mass and geometries that could not otherwise be machined via traditional methods.

“If you’re doing traditional machining or subtractive manufacturing, you’re really limited on what ways that machine can interact with the structure — it can only approach it from certain angles and it can only go in certain directions — so you’re really limited on the geometries you can create,” Borrelli said. “But if we do additive manufacturing, we can develop very stiff, very lightweight structures that you could not machine.”

Not only does 3D printing make more geometries possible, but Borrelli noted it also produces far less waste, can reduce cost and schedule, enable geometries and mass that are not otherwise possible and create one part from what might have been multiple components using traditional manufacturing.

A closer look at the finished product. (Photo provided)

As 3D printing technology continues to develop and include more materials, manufacturers expect even more changes and improvements to come.

“Moving forward it’s going to be more materials that we’re able to work with and different techniques will be possible,” DeGroote Nelson said, calling 3D printing “a massively growing field” with frequent innovation. “There’s a lot of very interesting things that are now capable of being made that historically you could not make. I’m very excited to see, as the field continues to progress, what is possible.”

Matthew Reitz is a Rochester-area freelance writer.