Design and Additive Manufacturing Expertise from 3D Systems to Serve Thales Alenia Space Satellite Sub-System

Product: DMP
Industry: Aerospace and Defense

3D Systems collaborates with Thales Alenia Space in the field of design for additive manufacturing (DfAM) to improve performance of a critical sub-system on its Spacebus NEO satellite. The resultant Electrical THruster Mechanism (ETHM) is comprised of seven different additively manufactured brackets. Additive manufacturing (AM) enabled the mechanism to be packaged within a limited volume at the lowest possible mass. Experts within 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group contributed design and manufacturing know-how to Thales Alenia Space’s ETHM project, packaging their expertise within the final build files that were transferred to Thales’ AM production facility in Morocco. This expert-generated manufacturing plan enabled Thales to seamlessly transition production to its own additive manufacturing facility which is outfitted with several 3D Systems’ direct metal printers. 

“Every feature is more or less conventional, but putting them together in a single compact and competitive mechanism is really a challenge.”

Gilles Lubrano, ETHM Product Manager


Seven metal printed components of Thales Alenia Space's ETHM

The seven different additively manufactured brackets comprising the ETHM.

The Electrical THruster mechanism points the satellite propulsion of the Spacebus NEO satellite to correctly position it in space. As such, the reliability of this component is mission-critical. Four ETHMs are required per satellite, forming the chassis around the engines. These parts perform as two axis gimbals holding the electrical propulsion unit, and enabling it to vector with smooth and steady movements.

To meet Thales Alenia Space requirements, the ETHM needed to balance volume and mass constraints while meeting stringent performance specifications, including:

  • High angle pointing accuracy (0.1-degrees);
  • Part count reduction including functional integration of various thruster commodities (harness and piping);
  • Serial production that meets quality requirements for orbital class products.


Render of Thales Alenia Space ETHM

3D Systems experts helped Thales Alenia Space achieve an optimized strength-to-weight ratio while solving for areas of heat concentration to protect functional components from thermal damage.

Design for Additive Manufacturing Consultation

Thales Alenia Space and 3D Systems have an enduring collaborative partnership, and have worked together to put over 1,700 flightworthy parts in orbit as of 2021. In the ETHM project, Thales Alenia Space partnered with 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group (AIG) to combine several functions within a small design space while guaranteeing accurate dynamics.

The total dynamic volume allotted for the ETHM is 480 mm x 480 mm x 380 mm, and includes rotary actuators, harness, tubing, and a holding mechanism. 3D Systems provided manufacturability and design feedback to help Thales Alenia Space achieve its performance objectives. 3D Systems experts helped Thales Alenia Space achieve an optimized strength-to-weight ratio while solving for areas of heat concentration to protect functional components from thermal damage.

By using AM to design and produce a system, Thales Alenia Space triggered an expansion of positive impacts. Light-weighting improved thrust efficiency beyond what conventional manufacturing would allow, which in turn improved fuel efficiency, resulting in lower costs and new opportunities for technical innovation elsewhere.

Manufacturing Flow Development

3D Systems helped Thales Alenia Space develop a robust manufacturing flow comprising post-processes like CNC-finishing and 100% tomography inspection to guarantee product and process repeatability in an AS9100 controlled environment. 3D Systems application engineers also provided guidance on the level and sequencing of quality controls for risk mitigation to help Thales Alenia Space ensure a thorough, quality-oriented, and cost-efficient manufacturing flow.

This expertise helped Thales Alenia Space achieve the 0.1-degree pointing accuracy required with an exacting CNC and inspection workflow in which some parts have as many as 249 measurement points taken via coordinate measuring machine that must be in spec. 3D Systems’ collaborative approach included education about the technology along the process of integrated quality controls, as well as root cause analyses of non-conformities against Thales Alenia Space specifications to ensure success. Prior to transitioning production to Thales Alenia Space, 3D Systems helped organize and coordinate a best-in-class supply chain to fulfill series production and produced more than 70 parts at its Customer Innovation Center in Belgium, which is part of 3D Systems’ AIG. The high capacity of this facility and repeatability across 3D Systems’ DMP machines helped ensure a short lead time.

Thales Alenia Space ETHM component in clamp for measurement

Some parts of the ETHM have as many as 249 measurement points taken via coordinated measuring machine that must be in spec.

Print File Preparation and Transfer

To ensure a seamless transition of ETHM production to Thales Alenia Space, 3D Systems application engineers developed each print file in 3DXpert®, incorporating years of AM expertise that saved Thales Alenia Space time and money while guaranteeing quality. Using these expert-generated build files, repeatable production is possible on any 3D Systems direct metal printer. The final brackets are printed in LaserForm Ti6Al4V grade 23 titanium material.

Several aspects of the thruster mechanism design made 3D Systems’ guidance on print strategy of particularly high value, including:

  • Maintaining intended roundness of several open structures with large circular interfaces.
  • Balancing support strength with removability.
  • Accounting for thermal stresses during the printing process that vary based on the geometry and material printed.

3D Systems’ experience working with titanium materials has helped countless critical applications balance complexity and strength to achieve project parameters. Tools like 3D Systems’ 3DXpert simulation module help support these projects by reducing the number of iterations required to achieve a successful outcome.

Technology Transfer

Close up of Thales Alenia Space ETHM components

The final brackets are printed in LaserForm Ti6Al4V grade 23 titanium material.

Thales Alenia Space is now capable of printing these parts at its own facilities following the training and technology transfer 3D Systems has provided over the years. Thales’ group 3D factory in Morocco is outfitted with several 3D Systems’ DMP machines, and took advantage of 3D Systems’ technology transfer offering at the time of installation. Technology transfer is an in-depth, AM-specific training designed to help new printer customers accelerate their transition to AM and safeguard their investment. In combination with the pre-developed build files, 3D Systems has fully supported Thales in its transition to in-house production.

“Using the same machines as the ones in our Customer Innovation Center in Belgium, Thales has simplified its access to a successful print so its team can focus on the industrialization of AM and maximize its return on investments,” said Koen Huybrechts, Manager Application Development, Application Innovation Group, 3D Systems.


ETHM is one of the first full space mechanisms entirely designed with additive manufacturing in mind. The seven different topologically optimized brackets raised the standards of a multi-disciplinary team by their size, the required high precision, and system criticality.

  • Pointing accuracy of 0.1-degrees ensures mechanism will perform as expected in flight
  • Increased thruster efficiency from reduced weight of topologically optimized brackets
  • 249 measurement points validated for quality control of most complex part
  • Integration and protection of thruster commodities for optimal form and function

The Spacebus NEO is part of the European Space Agency’s 15-year Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES) Program.

Rodin Cars Uses 3D Printing to Produce Titanium Gearboxes for Ultimate Hypercar

Product: DMP
Industry: Automotive and Transportation

Rodin Cars, a New Zealand-based car manufacturer, is using 3D Systems’ large-scale DMP Factory 500 metal 3D printer to produce the titanium components of its new bespoke track car, the Rodin FZERO. With performance and quality leading every engineering decision, the car is manufactured primarily from carbon fiber and titanium. 3D Systems’ metal additive manufacturing (AM) was selected as the production method for all complex titanium components to enable Rodin Cars to advance the design and performance of every part, regardless of size, including the eight-speed sequential gearbox – an industry first. 

“Our goal was to make every component of this car the best that it can be. The Rodin FZERO can only be manufactured with additive manufacturing.” 

Adam Waterhouse, Lead Engineer, Rodin Cars
Rodin Cars’ top priorities were to optimize for weight and function while using a non-corrosive material to maintain peak performance and appearance over time.


Targeting a final weight of only 650 kilograms and producing 4,000 kilograms of downforce, the single seat Rodin FZERO (for “zero restrictions”) is engineered to lap a circuit faster than a current Grand Prix Formula One racer. With industry-changing engineering built into every component, Rodin Cars was intent on thorough optimization to deliver the ultimate component for every part.  

When it came to using titanium additive manufacturing throughout the car, challenges arose as part sizes increased – particularly for large parts. Producing components like the gearbox to spec required a build volume beyond the capabilities of most metal printers. However, reverting to conventional methods of casting the gearbox in magnesium was not an option, as both the method and material would fall short of Rodin Cars’ objectives. To deliver the ultimate hypercar, Rodin Cars’ top priorities were to optimize for weight and function with AM, and use titanium for its value as a premium, non-corrosive material that will maintain peak performance and appearance over time. 

Innovation to Create a Lightweight Gearbox

The first step in optimizing the gearbox was creating a custom design together with renowned gearbox manufacturer, Ricardo. Following extensive work with 3D Systems after first adopting AM, Rodin Cars shared its gained knowledge with Ricardo, educating them on the unique benefits and capabilities of designing and manufacturing with additive. Rodin Cars needed very specific gear ratios and case dimensions, and knew it could only produce its design using AM. Removing excess mass was also a top priority, yielding thin walls down to 2mm thick in some areas. The two companies collaborated to design parts around the optimized geometry Rodin Cars was after, integrating internal galleries and fluid channels to help reduce the footprint of the final gearbox, which measures 400mm x 650mm x 300mm.  

To produce titanium AM parts with the required dimensions and accurate features, Rodin Cars selected 3D Systems’ direct metal printing (DMP) for its unique large-format capability and proven quality and repeatability. 

The DMP Factory 500 delivers exceptionally strong and accurate parts with high chemical purity, and the repeatability needed for serial production.

Proven Titanium Workflow

Optimizing the power to weight ratio is critical for high performance vehicles. As such, the ability to print the complex metal components in titanium was key for Rodin Cars’ mission to deliver premium performance while taking out as much weight as possible throughout the car. The integrity of titanium as a non-corrosive material also means neither the looks nor performance will degrade over time, which was important to Rodin Cars founder, David Dicker. 

According to Adam Waterhouse, lead engineer at Rodin Cars, effectively any component that is metal and isn’t a bolt is 3D printed. “Every bracket through to the gearbox has been printed,” said Waterhouse. “It’s an enormous range of parts. It’s very much a printed system.” The final titanium gearbox is printed in LaserForm Ti Gr23 (A), and weighs only 68 kilograms, including steel internals.  

3D Systems’ complete metal solution includes 3DXpert software, an all-in-one software for preparing, optimizing, and managing the metal printing workflow. For each of 3D Systems’ LaserForm materials, this software includes extensively developed print parameters, packaging the expertise of 3D Systems’ engineers within the workflow. The unique system architecture of 3D Systems’ DMP machines is also designed to enable full material usage without degradation. 

Equipo de Rodin Cars desempaquetando su nuevo DMP Factory 500

The DMP Factory 500 is the only available scalable metal additive manufacturing solution capable of producing high quality seamless large parts of up to 500 mm x 500 mm x 500 mm.

Large Scale Metal 3D Printing

Rodin Cars initially planned to split the gearbox into multiple smaller components and print them in-house using their legacy ProX DMP 320 machines. To spare them this extra effort, the engineering team was excited to learn about 3D Systems’ DMP Factory 500, the only available scalable metal additive manufacturing solution capable of producing high quality seamless large parts of up to 500 mm x 500 mm x 500 mm. Using this new platform, the gearbox can be produced as an assembly of only four sections that can be produced in a single build. 

The DMP Factory 500 features best-in-class oxygen levels (<25 ppm) and an inert printing atmosphere to ensure exceptionally strong and accurate parts with high chemical purity, and the repeatability needed for serial production. According to Waterhouse, this quality was put to the test with the thinly-walled cases of the gearbox, measuring just two millimeters thick.  

“These prints were proven to be extremely accurate,” said Waterhouse. “On our largest section, which is enormous, there was only 0.2-degrees twist in the part, which is really impressive. Not to mention, we have all the benefits of additive with the internal channels and incredibly thin walls that would be impossible to achieve any other way.”  

Metal Expertise from Application Innovation Group

To expedite access to large-scale metal printing in advance of the installation of its own DMP Factory 500, Rodin Cars worked with 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group (AIG) to get the first titanium gearbox printed. 3D Systems’ AIG is a global resource equipped with the experience and technology to support AM applications across industries, and can advise and assist on projects at any stage, from application development and frontend engineering, to equipment validation, process validation, and part qualification. 

3D Systems has provided Rodin Cars with ongoing knowledge and technology transfer since it first adopted additive manufacturing, helping the car company to increase its understanding of necessary principles for success with AM design and production. However, the shift to a large-scale printing format required a new set of best practices. 3D Systems’ AIG provided engineering and application development services to help Rodin Cars prove its concept, including final programming of the four gearbox components and printing of the first gearbox. 3D Systems also provided the programmed build files and technology transfer to accelerate Rodin Cars’ path to successful large-scale metal printing following the installation of the DMP Factory 500 at Rodin Cars’ facility. 

Alpine F1 Team Advances Energy and Fluid Management with Titanium Printed Hydraulic Accumulator

Product: DMP Flex 350
Industry: Automotive and Transportation

Alpine F1 Team turned to metal additive manufacturing (AM) to push the performance of its car by producing a titanium hydraulic accumulator with complete functionality in a minimized footprint. With years of collaborative supply and development with 3D Systems, Alpine F1 Team selected 3D Systems’ direct metal printing (DMP) technology to produce the complex part, and relied on 3D Systems’ expertise and proprietary cleaning processes to ensure optimal quality. 

“Beyond the necessary accuracy of the part itself, we had very strict fluid cleanliness requirements for the inverter coil that could only be achieved by partnering with 3D Systems. Their proprietary cleaning process has a proven track record in high performance applications for delivering particle-free components, even on challenging internal channels.” 

 – Pat Warner, Advanced Digital Manufacturing Manager, Alpine F1 Team 


Alpine F1 Team is continually improving its car, working in very short iteration cycles to advance and refine performance as much as possible. Constant challenges include working within the limited space available, keeping part weights as low as possible, and adhering to evolving regulation constraints.  

Experts within 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group (AIG) provided Alpine F1 Team with the know-how to make titanium production possible for a complex coiled component with a challenging, function-driven internal geometry. Additive manufacturing offers a unique opportunity to overcome the challenges of fast-paced innovation by supplying highly complex parts with short lead times. For parts like Alpine F1 Team’s hydraulic accumulator, additional AM expertise was required for a successful part due to the level of design complexity and strict requirements for cleanliness.  

Metal 3D printed inerter coil designed by Alpine F1

Additive manufacturing enabled the Alpine F1 Team to maximize the length of the dampening coil while packaging complete functionality within a restricted space.

The Solution

01 Packaging Complex Functionality in a Limited Space

For the accumulator, specifically a rear heave fluid inerter coil, Alpine F1 Team designed a hard-line damper, which is part of a rear heave damper in the rear suspension system inside the gearbox main case. A long, rigid piece of tubing, the accumulator stores and releases energy in order to average out pressure fluctuations. As such, the performance of the line damper is correlated to its internal volume, and thus the length of the component. 

Additive manufacturing enabled the Alpine F1 Team to maximize the length of the dampening coil while packaging complete functionality within a restricted space. According to Pat Warner, Advanced Digital Manufacturing Manager at Alpine F1 Team, the final design would be impossible to produce using any other method: “We designed this part to be as volumetrically efficient as possible, and to share wall thickness between adjacent tubes. Achieving this volume is only possible with AM.” 

The final titanium dampening coil was produced using 3D Systems’ DMP Flex 350, a high-performance metal AM system featuring best-in-class oxygen levels (<25 ppm) and an inert printing atmosphere. The unique system architecture of 3D Systems’ DMP machines ensures exceptionally strong and accurate parts with high chemical purity, and the repeatability needed for production parts. 

02 Part Cleanliness for Flawless Performance

During operation the dampening coil is filled with fluid and averages out pressure fluctuations within the system by absorbing and releasing energy. In order to function properly, the fluid has a specification for cleanliness to avoid contamination. Using metal AM to design and produce this component offered considerable benefits in terms of functionality, integration into the larger system, and weight reduction, yet the team faced a challenge when it came to complete powder removal from the internal channels.   

To achieve thorough material evacuation on these complex metal prints 3D Systems’ AIG contributed its vast process knowledge to apply a proprietary cleaning protocol that has been successfully used on to tens of thousands of parts, and ensures particle-free titanium components. For customers who plan to adopt metal AM and require the highest degree of part cleanliness for internal channels, 3D Systems has an established protocol to transfer this know-how to new facilities. 

Alpine F1 race car

Alpine F1 Team works in very short iteration cycles to advance and refine the performance of its car as much as possible.

03 Quality Metal Workflow

3D Systems’ complete metal AM solution goes beyond its leading expertise and metal printing platform to include carefully developed and optimized materials and 3DXpert software. 3DXpert is an all-in-one software for preparing, optimizing, and managing the metal printing workflow.  

Alpine F1 Team selected LaserForm Ti Gr23 (A) material for its accumulator, citing high strength and the ability to accurately produce thin wall sections as the reasons for its choice. All LaserForm materials have specific, extensively developed print parameters within 3DXpert that package the expertise of 3D Systems’ engineers within the workflow for the highest quality results.

04 Expert Consultation

Alpine F1 Team leveraged 3D Systems’ design for additive manufacturing expertise to accelerate its path forward and advance its success with guidance on optimum build orientation, achievable wall thicknesses, and how to share walls between adjacent wall sections, as well as its post-processing expertise. As a consistent co-developer of innovative and industry-first solutions, 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group has a breadth and depth of experience in transitioning applications from concepts to scaled manufacturing.  

3D Systems is partner to hundreds of critical applications across industries where quality and performance are paramount. 3D Systems’ systematized approach to scaling from prototyping to production ensures a streamlined path to qualified AM parts, and the AM leader also offers technology transfer to help customers successfully adopt additive manufacturing within their own facilities. 

Following the success of Alpine F1 Team’s titanium printed accumulator, Warner says the team was encouraged to pursue more complex suspension components the following year. 

Topology Optimization and Direct Metal 3D Printing (DMP) in GE Aircraft Engine Bracket Challenge

Product: DMP Printing
Industry: Aerospace and Defense 

Frustum Inc. software and 3D Systems’ Direct Metal Printing expertise cut aircraft bracket weight 70% while meeting all functional requirements.

The conundrum of balancing the design of a part with the constraints of manufacturing has existed since the Industrial Revolution. Conventional manufacturing techniques have limited capabilities to realize complex geometries or organically shaped components on a cost effective way. This results often in components where functionality and performance are a trade-off.

Now that 3D printing, especially Direct Metal Printing (DMP), has become a viable manufacturing alternative, the constraints imposed by traditional manufacturing have been very much removed. In response to this, software tools for Multi-Disciplinary Design Optimization are now emerging to deliver a convergence point. Topology optimization software is now capable of generating the most efficient designs for one-step manufacturing on the latest generation of DMP systems. Translation? What you model is what you manufacture.

This confluence of technologies was demonstrated recently in a project undertaken by software company Frustum and 3D Systems’ On-Demand Parts service, Quickparts. The project was a publicized challenge by GE Aircraft to reduce the weight of an aircraft bracket while maintaining the strength needed to meet all of its functional requirements, primarily supporting the weight of the cowling while the engine is in service.

The critical nature of weight

Since the beginning of motorized travel on land, air or sea, engineers have striven to balance the demands of weight vs. strength. The balancing act has become more critical in recent years with greater worldwide manufacturing competition, stricter energy conservation measures, escalating cost and delivery time pressures.

Weight is especially crucial for modern aircraft. Although a Boeing 737 weighs approximately 65 metric tons, eliminating only one pound in weight can generate savings of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for airline companies. Spread that number out to include all aircraft worldwide and the savings are upwards of $10 million according to a GE Aircraft white paper.

Optimizing the design

For the GE Aircraft challenge, Frustum’s software for topology optimization provided the first steps in tackling critical weight vs. strength issues.

Topology optimization determines the most-efficient material layout to meet the exact performance requirements of a part. It takes into consideration the given space allowed, load conditions of the part and maximum stresses allowed in the material.

Frustum’s software automatically generates optimized geometries from existing CAD files. It creates material between the design features to make optimally stiff and lightweight structures. Smooth and blended surfaces reduce weight and minimize stress concentrations.

“Based on an existing conventional part design, our software automatically produces optimized geometry for Additive Manufacturing, without needing to do any remodeling,” says Jesse Blankenship, CEO of Frustum.

Unlike parts manufactured by traditional CNC or casting methods, the complexity of the model generated by topology optimization is of no concern, as DMP handles extremely complex models as easily as simplistic ones. Complexity comes at no cost.

Providing the 3D printing expertise

Once the initial design was generated, 3D Systems’ expertise came into play.

3D Systems’ On Demand Manufacturing service, Quickparts is the world’s leading provider of unique, custom-designed parts, offering instant online quoting, expertise in 3D design and printing, and proven manufacturing services support. This worldwide service is especially well-versed in the more complicated aspects of Direct Metal Printing.

“Direct Metal Printing is much more complex than plastics printing,” says Jonathan Cornelus, business development manager for 3D Systems Quickparts. “We help our customers to develop parts suitable for DMP, with minimized risks for part distortions or build crashes. We print components using optimized parameters based on our long-term experience in printing parts for customers.”

Manufacturing a better part

In the case of the GE aircraft bracket, Frustum’s software took the original CAD file and performed the topology optimization in one step, delivering an STL file.

3D Systems provided manufacturing advice on the process, material specifications, the best build orientation to deliver optimal part properties, achievable tolerances, and identified potential risk for deformations. The part was built on a 3D Systems ProX™ DMP 320 system.

The ProX DMP 320, introduced in early January 2016, offers several advantages for optimizing the weight vs. strength for the aircraft bracket.

Preset build parameters, developed by 3D Systems based on the outcome of nearly half-a-million builds, provide predictable and repeatable print quality for almost any geometry.

A totally new architecture simplifies set-up and delivers the versatility to produce all types of part geometries in titanium, stainless steel or nickel super alloy. Titanium was chosen for the GE aircraft bracket, based on its superior strength even when material is thinly applied to lower a part’s weight.

Exchangeable manufacturing modules for the ProX DMP 320 system reduce downtime when moving among different part materials, and a controlled vacuum build chamber ensures that every part is printed with proven material properties, density and chemical purity. The small portion of non-printed material can be completely recycled, saving money and providing environmental benefits.

An eye opener

The completed part, designed by Frustum and DMP-manufactured by 3D Systems, passed all the load condition requirements specified by the GE challenge and stayed within the same footprint while reducing weight by a staggering 70 percent.

“This is the kind of project that should be a real eye-opener for automotive and aerospace companies, where reducing weight while providing the same or improved functionality is the lifeblood of their design, engineering and manufacturing operations,” says Cornelus.

Beyond the design and performance of the part itself, Cornelus points out that topology optimization teamed with DMP can often consolidate multi-part assemblies into a stronger single part, eliminating fasteners and connectors that are often the cause of failures.

Finally, there is the coveted advantage of speed. Production-grade parts in tough materials such as stainless steel, titanium and nickel super alloy can be turned around by 3D Systems in as little as two weeks to satisfy the ever-quickening pace in myriad industries.

NuVasive Taps AM Ecosystem to Optimize Spine Implant Technology

Product: DMP Print
Industry: Medical

NuVasive saw an opportunity with additive manufacturing (AM) back in 2015. The orthopedic device company recognized that the unique capability of AM to produce complex and optimized shapes could open new avenues in its design and manufacturing of minimally invasive, procedurally integrated spine solutions. The only snag was that no one at the company possessed AM experience.

NuVasive knew that it needed to partner with a service and manufacturing provider for the AM process. The result of that ultimate collaboration was that NuVasive quickly capitalized on the advantages of AM, going from design to market in just over one year with the 2017 launch of Modulus®—now a full implant line.

Picking a partner to grow expertise

Optimized spinal implant by NuVasive produced using 3D printing

Even accounting for the talent and expertise housed within the NuVasive team, hard work combined with strategic innovation allowed the company to successfully design, qualify and bring to market an optimized family of AM implants in 14 months. If this were a subtractively manufactured product, this would be no surprise: NuVasive has a 180,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in West Carrollton, Ohio, where it performs traditional manufacturing day-in and day-out. AM is another story, and the novelty of the approach to the company and its workforce presented unique challenges.

Realizing that they needed outside counsel, NuVasive first identified several topline criteria for selecting its AM expert. The quality and reliability of the available 3D printing technology were both non-negotiable. The company needed software application support to effectively manufacture a novel device. Lastly, it sought a partner that had credibility within the AM industry and could grow alongside NuVasive.

“We were not willing to take any risks in this regard,” said Jeremy Malik, Director of Product Development at NuVasive.

After conducting thorough research, NuVasive chose 3D Systems, with its Direct Metal Printing (DMP) technology and team of application engineers and AM experts, to commercialize Modulus.

Proceeding from concept to commercialization

The design philosophy behind the Modulus line was to utilize new technology in a meaningful way to deliver a final product that is innovative, as opposed to new. According to NuVasive, the company’s goal was to provide the optimal spinal implant without making significant tradeoffs in the process.

3D Systems' metal additive manufacturing machines at the Customer Innovation Center in Denver, CO

The Modulus line balances porosity with load sharing, and each independent SKU is optimized for improved radiolucency. This was achieved through topological optimization, an algorithm-based design strategy that removes excess material that serves no structural or functional purpose. A component that has been topologically optimized is lighter-weight with no adverse impact on strength. In the case of the Modulus line, topological optimization also facilitates better imaging characteristics across all shapes and sizes of implants, giving surgeons a better view into bone fusion during follow-up. In addition, the optimized lattice structure provides a fully porous architecture that creates an environment conducive for bone in-growth.

“We wanted to do things we couldn’t do before,” Malik said. “There is more to this device than simply utilizing a new technology to bring it to market; we used new technology to help drive improved clinical outcomes for patients.” 

Together, the two companies generated a number of file iterations for different ways that the desired devices could be printed, and 3D Systems provided critical industry expertise on print strategies, metallurgy and residual powder removal, among other unfamiliar but impactful AM aspects.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know,” Malik said. “3D Systems helped educate us on the additive process and worked with us to iron out our process beyond just the printing. We had a lot of open dialogue, and that communication was key to our success.”

Through the process, NuVasive leveraged 3D Systems’ Customer Innovation Centers (CICs). These facilities, and access to the expertise housed within them, provide an ecosystem of AM solutions that include design and manufacturing capabilities, along with premium hardware, software and materials. Covering everything from application development and frontend engineering, to equipment validation, process validation, part qualification and production, 3D Systems’ CICs help companies with various experience levels accelerate innovation through additive technology.

From design to production, NuVasive was able to capitalize on what the technology had to offer in terms of improved functionality without making large initial investments.

The two companies also collaborated beyond design optimization to achieve a qualified AM production workflow. Notwithstanding NuVasive’s track record in earning FDA clearance on products made with traditional manufacturing, using a new process introduced unique regulatory challenges.

According to Malik, NuVasive addressed those issues by leveraging 3D Systems’ data on manufacturing reproducibility in order to bolster its justifications in its FDA submission.

“3D Systems had customers who cleared devices through FDA in the past, so we knew we partnered with someone who had in-house expertise to help us navigate these requirements,” he said. “That was a nice safety net.”

Integrating additive into the portfolio

Fast forward to today, NuVasive is a spine leader in AM with a fully 3D-printed family of FDA-cleared spine implants on the market. The Modulus line is the result of thoughtful design, and balances the benefits of porosity and performance requirements of interbody fusion devices.

In the end, it took NuVasive roughly 14 months to go from concept to commercialization with its Modulus product line. Although this is a fairly standard timeline for traditional manufacturing processes, the company was excited that it was able to maintain the same pacing in its first application of AM.

“It is a significant undertaking to build your production process in addition to designing and building your product,” Malik said. “We were proud we had the ability to develop both, and relied on 3D Systems to help build out our datasets and justifications in order to get us to market.”

As to product manufacturing and deployment, 3D Systems provides supply chain flexibility and fulfills volume production orders internally or through certified partners, as well as helps customers transition to additive production at their own facilities through knowledge and technology transfer.

NuVasive is beginning to do its own titanium 3D printing in-house, and is using DMP technology for R&D prototyping, as well as to better understand how the machines work to continue refining its production process.

“It’s been a huge improvement for us to have that capability on site,” Malik said. “Now we have a legitimate, scalable manufacturing process and the ability for continuous improvement in the future.”