The Role of 3D Printing at Alden

While certain parts of science have remained unchanged since the lab got its start in 1894, new technology is continually incorporated and applied to our field of flow science. And though it isn't exactly brand new, we have been embracing 3D printing more often at the lab. Read on to find out where 3D printing has been beneficial in our day to day flow-related activities.

What is 3D Printing?

Printing in 3D simply means the creation of a three-dimensional part, usually by the layering of material. It's also widely known as Additive Manufacturing because the material is "combined" into the final shape. 

As the capabilities of 3D printing continue to expand—printer quality, materials used, and even the computer modeling that helps to drive the printers continue to evolve—so do the opportunities to use it in model construction, as well as in design and analysis jobs.  

Where is 3D Printing Used?

A widely used application for 3D printing is for rapid protoyping. Printing a part is relatively quick, so it's easy to produce multiple design iterations to get the design right and not let design failures eat up budget timelines. It also means parts can be easily visualized before the true manufacturing process takes place.

Advancements have also allowed 3D printing to be used for final end-products. Especially for highly customized products like prosthesis or dental molds, 3D printing offers a cost-effective method for low quantity, low-time to market parts that can be readily available without the need for special tooling, unique molds or pricey fixtures. 

In addition, 3D printing can produce molds and blanks for sand casting, vacuum forming or wax investment casting. Yet another quick and relatively inexpensive process versus conventional casting and forming methods.

Types of 3D Printers

FDM – Fused Deposition Modeling
Most common form of 3D printing
Melted filament is extruded to "draw" each layer. The printer head moves in the Z direction for each layer
Quick, easy 3D printing
Inexpensive materials
Can have hollow parts
Limited resolution 
SLA- Stereolithography
A laser draws a layer in a UV curing resin
A bed lifts part from the resin tank as the part is formed
Can achieve very high resolution     
Can only print solid parts
More expensive
SLS/SLM-Selective layer sintering/selective laser melting
Can print metals
Can print thin walls
No need for support structures
Complex and expensive machines
Binder Jetting
Laying down a powder layer, then printing a resin shape on the powder
Can print in color
No need for support structures
Complex and expensive machines


3D Printed Parts at Alden: How they are used

Parts from 3D printers find their ways to various aspects of our model construction, testing, and analysis and can be broken down into the following categories:


Parts from 3D printers often serve functionally in our flow model creations. They are used in lieu of traditionally manufactured parts because of their ability to provide detailed aesthetics very quickly and inexpensively. 


Traditional carpentry methods, while effective, can be time consuming. Printing a small step spillway allowed technicians to focus on more engineering intensive aspects of model construction
Produced conventionally, pump station inflow strainer baskets could take up to a week each to machine. Through the magic of 3D printing, each basket was completed in approximately 24 hours



The various shapes and bends of custom pipe flow transitions can be difficult and time consuming to machine. They can, however, be quickly and easily produced via 3D printing



Using 3D printed designs can help explain complex 3D geometries and concepts. For as much as anyone can look at detailed drawings on a computer, sometimes tactile examination can help reaffirm design intent.

mixed-flow-impellerThis 3D printed mixed flow impeller design provides inexpensive assistance to an engineer analyzing test results

Business Development

For clients who need help developing a prototype, our team can help deliver an optimized design via 3D printing. We have even put it to use in our own product development cycles, using it within several prototypes of our fire fighting nozzle project.


Design iterations of a fire fighting nozzle prototype have benefited from our industry leading flow experience and inexpensive and speedy 3D printing

Wondering if your idea could benefit from quick prototyping, coupled with our know-how? The process is simple—it starts with a conversation, so let's talk.


And of course, we can also have fun with our 3D printer by creating pieces that help add details to models and structures. Who says you can't take joy in creating something to help aid client recognition or aesthetics? 


The superstructure of a Panamax cargo ship used in the Mid-Barataria sediment diversion model was made realistic through the art of 3D printing


As resolution and material properties continue to improve, 3D printing technology is going to find its way into more of our everyday lives, not just in places like our lab—from printed concrete structures, to houses, to even using it in bio-engineering advances like printing scaffolding to promote the growth of living tissue. Just as we've done for the past 125-plus years, we will continue to look for ways to incorporate new techniques into our flow model studies and design analysis that provide timely and cost-effective gains in the work we do, and that includes the use of 3D printing. 

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