The popular understanding of 3-D printing—and the one that always seems to get the most fanfare—is focused on using plastics for modeling and rapid prototyping. But, additive manufacturing techniques with more direct industrial applications, using metals powders and alloys to produce component parts, have been growing increasingly sophisticated in labs and factories during the past decade. It’s a quiet but ongoing mission to bring new tools to the tooling industry, and that mission just got a boost.

In March, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute (NAMII) announced its first round of award funding: $4.5 million allotted to seven additive manufacturing projects around the country to develop novel solutions and new applications of 3-D printing techniques.

One of those projects, “Qualification of Additive Manufacturing Processes and Procedures for Repurposing or Rejuvenation of Tooling,” awarded to Case Western Reserve University, addresses the tooling industry specifically.

“Our project will focus on the applying additive manufacturing techniques directly to tools and dies to help extend their life and even repurpose them for new uses,” explained James McGuffin-Cawley, chairman of the material science and engineering department at CWRU.

“This is an area that has had a lot of attention and there are a lot of clever people who have done a lot of clever things with it through the decades,” he said. “But there is a special opportunity to use these manufacturing techniques in concert with the repair and repurposing process.”

In fact, there are quite a few special opportunities available through those techniques and there are also some significant financial benefits to be wrought as well. Once these techniques are worked out, McGuffin-Cawley explained, they would have the immediate potential to save millions in retooling costs for foundries, diecasters, and manufacturers across the industry.

“These are large, massive, high-strength tools, many of which cost over $1 million to produce, that are repeatedly used for thousands or hundreds of thousands of cycles,” he said. “Repairing damage and repurposing tools rather than producing a whole new tool would be extremely cost-effective.”