Let’s get into the first of a brace of posts on the subject of 3D printing. This time around the block, we’re going to talk about something that I get asked about a lot and something I’ve often seen being misconstrued in more general media – namely, the difference between 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing.
It used to be much easier. Most 3D printing technologies were used for rapid prototyping. The creation early stage product mock-ups, of concept models – essentially supporting the design and engineering process. They were used to mimic the results of more traditional manufacturing processes, such as machining, casting, injection molding, etc, etc.
Then some bright spark came along and realized that you could use the same layer-based manufacturing processes to, perhaps, build final end use components. We used to call that rapid or direct manufacturing.
The issue was, as anyone that’s worked in the field knows, is that these machines aren’t all that rapid. In fact, they’re often infuriatingly slow. But this was how it was: Rapid Prototyping vs Rapid Manufacturing. And it was our little secret in the world of design and engineering.
Then it went nuts.
I can’t remember when it happened now. I think around seven or eight years ago perhaps. Sparked by RepRap project at the University of Bath (that gave the basics of many of today’s desktop 3D printing devices) and the rise of Brooklyn’s Makerbot (now part of the Stratasys empire).
MakerBot prints a cylinder, 2010. Screen capture from Wikimedia commons video, Ncmazvin.
As patents began to expire, we saw a boom in entry-level rapid prototyping machines. Of course, rapid prototyping is a term that’s industry specific and the mainstream media needed a new term. Behold, the term 3D printing was born.
Then those working at the more advanced end of the market wanted to differentiate their solutions that were as different from a two grand ABS extruding machine as chalk from cheese. The folks working with advanced laser sintering machines for both plastics and metals, those working on machines that build parts by fusing together powdered titanium, didn’t want their machines confused with an inkjet.
This class of vendors have also been pushing the adoption of their machines in the world of manufacturing as an alternative to the likes of CNC machining and injection molding. And so the term Additive Manufacturing was born.
And that seems to be how it is now. 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing. And I guess we’d better tackle the initial question – what’s the difference between the two?
The simple answer is that at a technological level, very little – the differentiation (to my mind at least) is bound up in both the application of the individual process and machine and the end result.
A 3D printer could, at a very root level, be used to manufacture end use parts. It’s all a question of what that part is to be used for. Is it a plastic, low resolution, Yoda head, that’s going to be sat on someone’s desk? I’d say that’s 3D printing. Is it a case for your iPhone that probably cost three times what a properly manufactured one would cost and will last half as long? That’s probably 3D printing.
Is it an insert for a mold tool that features complex geometries difficult to machine or spark erode and has internal conformal cooling channels that give a better surface finish that will be used 20 times a minute? That’s Additive Manufacturing. Is it a new set of components for a helicopter that reduce the tool required and go through a complex process chain of material characterization and post manufacture testing? That’s additive manufacturing,
You get the gist, right?
Essentially, 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing are the same thing. They’re both based on layer based manufacturing techniques. Each has its own strong points and weak points (and that’s down to a material and machine level). It’s all about what you’re doing with it and what you intend to do with the parts once they are ready. Will that be needed to be repeatable? Will that be used in normal operating conditions? Or will it sit on your desk, looking pretty?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. What really matters is that we take advantage of these processes, machines, and technologies were they make most sense – whether that’s upfront in the design process, in engineering test, in manufacturing, or in the final product. Just as long as we’re not making Yoda head pencil holders – because no likes landfill, right?
[Ed: Whether you’re a CEO, an engineer, or a Maker, additive manufacturing offers some unique advantages (and disadvantages). Find out who’s using it, the obstacles they face, and some tips for printing smarter with Creo in our free Additive Manufacturing infographic. Available now.]