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Labs in NNSA lead the way in 3D printing – the next industrial revolution

The power to create useful items from raw materials recently entered regular homes via small-scale 3D-printers, but the concept of additive manufacturing isn’t so new. From defense, aerospace, automotive, medicine, and metals manufacturing, the capabilities enabled by 3D printing have wide-reaching effects.

Additive manufacturing builds products and components from digital models. Like an office printer that layers ink on a piece of paper, a 3D printer creates components by depositing thin layers of material according to a digital blueprint.

Recently, 3D printing has expanded to use metals, ceramics, and semiconductors as its medium, opening the doors for new solutions to critical national security issues, with NNSA’s laboratories at the forefront.

NNSA researchers have been able to use 3D printing to create new materials not found in nature, with specific properties necessary for certain applications. By designing materials from the inside out with the characteristics fine-tuned to maximize safety and performance, NNSA’s labs are at the leading edge of innovation enabled by this technology.

NNSA labs and sites also additively manufacture models of nuclear weapons for testing and verifying their performance. Key advances in additive manufacturing using metal comes from NNSA research into an advanced process to use a laser to melt successive layers of metal powder to build up shapes. The technique lets engineers design in ways that aren’t possible with standard manufacturing methods and are able to make components that perform better and weigh less.

While using 3D printing to maintain the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, NNSA labs are advancing the broader science of the field.

Award-winning researchers from NNSA labs have 3D-printed beads to capture carbon dioxide to mitigate climate change, better armor material for warfighters, and even living tissue. NNSA material scientists have found that 3D-printed foam works better than standard materials in durability and long-term mechanical performance. Additive manufacturing allows engineers to achieve not only the precise internal composition materials required by intricate designs, but exact shape and microstructure of materials. As a key benefit, additive manufacturing reduces waste and material costs.   

Learn more about research and development of additive manufacturing at NNSA’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratory, and Kansas City National Security Campus.