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Lattice structures in 3D Printing


In 3D printing, lattice structures are an important design tool that can dramatically improve the finished part. A proper understanding of the creation and application of lattices is important for good design, as lattices can offer dramatic improvements across a range of features. In this article, you’ll learn what lattices are and their benefits in 3D printing, as well as the different types of lattice structures and their applications.

What Are Lattice Structures?

3d printing textures
TPU lattice structure, source: Sculpteo

Lattice structures, as their name suggests, are structures made up of planes or struts in various configurations. The use of lattices in 3D printing is inspired by structures found in nature: crystalline structures, the structures found in plant tissue, honeycombs, and other lattices have all provided inspiration in the development of lattices for manufacturing. Lattice structures may be designed with hexagonal, octagonal or other repeating patterns, or they may have a random configuration.

If you’ve ever designed an object to be 3D printed, you may already have used lattice structures in the context of infilling voids within your printed items. Sometimes there’s an empty space between the perimeters of a 3D printed part, which would create problems if not properly infilled. Lattices are used for this purpose as they facilitate printing and make the finished part much stronger. This is just one application of lattices, which we’ll return to later in the article.

Lattice structures can be included in the design of almost any 3D design. Unless you’re a specialist designer, though, you’re probably not using lattice structures to their fullest potential. 

Read on to discover more about the benefits of lattice structures and how you can incorporate them into your 3D designs.

Benefits of Using Lattice Structures

In the following sections, we’ll look at some of the main benefits of utilizing lattice structures in your designs.

Efficient Material Use

One of the most common reasons to deploy lattice structures in 3D printing is to reduce the amount of material needed for a print without compromising mechanical strength and other properties. Incorporating lattices into your design dramatically cuts down on the amount of material you’ll need to print it. Many people, especially novice designers, fall into the trap of designing larger elements as a solid block. Instead, it’s generally better to infill the space bounded by the perimeters with a lattice structure. This means that instead of a solid chunk of wasted material, you have a design that maximizes efficiency and only requires sufficient material to create the spars that make up the lattice. This can make the final cost of printing the item significantly lower, especially in cases where more expensive materials are required. Even if you’re using less costly materials, the savings can add up over a long production run. In cases where your end product doesn’t have any particular mechanical requirements, it’s still worth considering lattice structure infill as a way to save on materials and cut costs.

Besides cost savings, reducing material waste has other benefits too. The less material you use, the lower the environmental impact of your product will be.

Reduced Weight

    Aside from reducing costs, cutting down on the amount of material used in a 3D print also reduces the overall weight. It’s common for the final mass of a part to be something that’s constrained by the requirements of a project, meaning that making each component as light as possible is often a priority. Consider safety wear or biomedical applications, for example. In the case of items that might be worn or carried, it’s vital to reduce weight and minimizing the mass of the finished product will be a major consideration. Another example would be parts for automotive applications; any weight reduction here will have a concomitant impact on fuel consumption.

    Density and Buoyancy

    As well as weighing less, an object containing lattice structures is less dense and more buoyant than a solid object with the same dimensions. This can be important in some applications, such as ones where an object needs to float in a liquid.

    Absorption of Energy

    Lattice structures can absorb significantly more energy than solid masses or a void alone. By varying the configuration and density of the lattice in different areas, utilizing different cell types and changing the size of the cells, a design may be fine-tuned to absorb energy coming from different directions. This energy can be redirected and distributed through the structure, allowing it to withstand impact forces more effectively. In combination with modern materials, this design approach can create items with outstanding impact resistance and mechanical strength.

    Maximizing Surface Area

    In some applications, increasing the surface area of a design as much as possible is a priority. Examples might be chemical catalysis or heat exchange. Having a high surface area can significantly improve the performance of a part or assembly in these contexts. With their multiple struts and walls, lattice structures have a far higher surface area than a solid item with the same dimensions or a simple void. This allows them to radiate more heat, for instance.

    Aesthetic Appeal

      While lattice structures have a range of technical and cost-saving advantages, they’re also attractive from an aesthetic perspective. Their delicate crystalline or organic-looking forms are very appealing to many people. Product designers often take advantage of this to make their items more desirable to customers, incorporating elements with lattice structures even if there’s no specific mechanical benefit. Lattice structures can give a product a light, airy appearance, or help to convey a high-tech futuristic feel. It’s not uncommon for products that use lattice structures to have transparent elements that make the lattice visible to the consumer, since they’re so attractive to look at.

      BASF Ultrafuse 316L pipe infill 2
      Lattice structure similar to honeycomb, printed with Ultrafuse® 316L, source: Sculpteo

      Lattice structure types

      A lattice structure is based on a unit cell: a repeating shape that’s copied again and again in different directions, creating a lattice. The type of lattice produced will depend on the shape and arrangement of the unit cells. Lattice types can be grouped under general categories that reflect their main properties.

      If you wish to find out more about lattice generation tools in order to create your own lattice structures, read our lattice generation tools guide.

      There is a huge variety of sub-types — in fact, lattice structures are the subject of entire mathematical research fields, with rafts of papers being written on their various permutations. These variations are outside the scope of this article; for our purposes, the basics will be fine.

      Planar Lattices

      The simplest form of lattice, a planar lattice starts with a flat plane made up of two-dimensional cells. These cells are then extruded into three dimensions.

      Strut Lattices

      A strut lattice is composed of a network of interconnecting beams, which are joined in various configurations based on the unit cell used. The unit cell will typically be cubic, with struts connecting at the faces, edges or vertices of this cube. Understand that the cubic cell used is not a physical structure — it’s a mathematical design element used to construct the lattice of struts, rather than a physical element. Only the struts will actually be printed.

      TPMS Lattices

      TPMS stands for Triply Periodic Minimal Surface. A TPMS lattice is made up of unit cells generated using a trigonometric equation. Originally described in the late 1800s by German mathematician Hermann Schwarz, TPMS lattice structures have numerous applications in additive manufacturing.

      A common example is the gyroid cell, a TPMS unit cell based on the equation sin(x)cos(y) + sin(y)cos(z) + sin(z)cos(x)=0. The gyroid cell consists of all points where the equation is true.

      By modifying the equation or using a different trigonometric equation, different unit cell shapes can be created. The lattice structures produced from these shapes are complex and varied, and have a range of unique properties that can be exploited in 3D printing.

      Periodic Versus Stochastic Lattices

      A periodic lattice structure is one in which each unit cell repeats without any changes throughout the object. A stochastic lattice, in contrast, has unit cells with parameters that vary randomly. Stochastic lattice structures can be advantageous in some design applications. They can make a structure isotropic; that is, they can give it similar properties across all directions.

      An example of a periodic lattice in nature might be a honeycomb. This is essentially a planar lattice consisting of hexagonal unit cells of a uniform size and arrangement. On the other hand, some types of bone tissue are composed of stochastic lattices: cells whose size, shape and arrangement vary throughout an area to create a strong structure that resists force from various directions.

      TPU insole, source: Sculpteo

      Limitations of the lattice structures

      We’ve seen some of the benefits and applications of lattice structures, and how they can help optimize certain designs. It’s important to note, however, that they do have some limitations. These need to be kept in mind when designing 3D products.

      Cell Types

      The unit cell is the basis for any lattice structure and will confer different properties to the object constructed using the lattice. Unfortunately, the number of cell types that you can easily access in most 3D design packages will be limited. While there are certainly software tools available that allow you to design your own unit cells and create lattice structures based on these, such an undertaking may be more technical and specialized than most designers and engineers are able to undertake effectively. It’s better to get to know the types of unit cell that you’ll have ready access to and learn to utilize these effectively.

      File Sizes

      Because lattice structures are so complex, they can drastically affect the size of a digital file. With the most common file types, large lattice structure sections can easily push the file size well over 1GB. This can be a challenge for most computers when further processing of the file is needed. While it’s possible to make reductions in the size of the mesh, this needs to be done with caution. The final result can be impaired if the mesh is reduced carelessly.

      Simulation Issues

      Stress simulations for 3D designs already require a lot of processing power. The computation needed becomes more intensive when you introduce lattice structures into the equation. For periodic, unvarying lattices the computational intensity can be reduced as the properties of a unit cell can be extrapolated across the whole of the lattice. If you’re using a design with different cell types and sizes, though, this might not be possible. In some cases, especially if the lattice structures are very diverse or make up large areas of the object, virtual stress simulations may be impossible. In these instances, a physical prototype will be required for testing. This will obviously increase the time and financial cost required for the project.

      Manufacturing Issues

      While additive manufacturing can easily handle the complexities of creating a lattice structure, the same can’t be said for many traditional manufacturing processes. This needs to be kept in mind if you’re creating a 3D-printed prototype for a product that will be manufactured using other methods in the future. The restrictions of conventional manufacturing techniques, such as injection molding, need to be factored in when designing a part that includes lattice structures. This is particularly important if other areas of the part are being designed for a different manufacturing process. It may be necessary to take a different design approach or to consider alternative materials.

      In some instances, moving from conventional manufacturing to 3D printing might be a better solution than compromising the quality of the end product. Some designs simply aren’t suitable for more traditional methods. It may be worth reconsidering the manufacturing process used and pivoting to additive manufacturing instead. If the decision is taken to produce the entire product line using 3D printing, you might need to consider ways of reducing the time needed to produce each item and to look at reducing the unit cost.

      Metal-plated part using a lattice structure, source: Sculpteo

      Let's start the 3D printing journey

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      Just upload your design to our website, select the materials and parameters you want, and we’ll give you an estimate in real time.

      If you’re still working on your design, we can help there too. Our skilled team of designers and engineers can support you during the initial design process, while our 3D printing experts will take care of the production when your design is ready to be realized. Whether you’re looking to print up a single prototype part or are ready to order an entire product run, Sculpteo has the materials, equipment and skilled experts that you need.

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