Traditional manufacturing techniques are usually subtractive in nature, and they start with a block of raw material. This means that a part is created by cutting away from the larger block, either manually or with a CNC machine. Subtractive techniques are used on a wide variety of materials for hundreds of applications, ranging from industrial metal parts to plastic consumer products.
Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, usually starts with a blank build tray. To create the part, layers of material are successively added and fused together. Most additive manufacturing technologies use 3D modeling software, or CAD, to store the initial data – this includes everything from the basic shape to color and texture information. Because much of the processing – from layer slicing to print preparation – is automated, additive manufacturing is significantly faster than CNC machining. That’s why you might see the terms “additive manufacturing” and “rapid prototyping” used interchangeably.
Are additive manufacturing and 3D printing the same thing?
Almost, but not exactly.
Additive manufacturing describes a manufacturing method. 3D printing is a name for a specific process that falls under the additive manufacturing, or AM, umbrella. Many resources use the terms completely interchangeably, and that’s because currently, one of the most widely used AM processes is 3D printing. Typically, industrial and large-scale applications will use the term AM, and applications that require realism or smaller-scale production will stick with 3D printing.
Are there other additive manufacturing processes?
Yes! Terminology can be confusing, because many AM processes are also characterized as 3D printing. However, these processes are all distinct from each other in key ways:
- Powder Bed Fusion starts with a build platform and a very thin layer of powdered material. A laser fuses the material into shape as new layers of powder are added. This process works with a wide variety of materials, including metals, plastics, and nylons.
- Sheet Lamination works by stacking sheets of material like paper, plastic, or metal and bonding them together with heat, pressure, or adhesive.
- 3D Printing covers a huge variety of methods, including material extrusion processes like FDM, stereolithography, and selective laser sintering. 3D printing processes often use polymers like thermoplastics and liquid resins, but some work with metals and even ceramics.
What are the potential benefits of additive manufacturing?
One of the earliest AM applications was rapid prototyping, because processes like 3D printing allow for fast, economical design iterations early in the production process.
Additive manufacturing also allows for a high degree of design freedom. When designers aren’t limited by molds or pre-cut blocks of material, they can create intricate and fully customized parts from the inside out.
Which industries can benefit?
There’s no hard limit to the industries that benefit from additive manufacturing, but the technology is transforming production in several key areas.
With AM, it’s inexpensive and fast to create dozens of early-stage prototypes, perfect for design verification and even functional testing in vehicles. Fully customizable production enables better innovation, helping companies stay ahead of competition.
AM allows manufacturers to replace heavy metal parts with lightweight but durable plastic parts, which means lighter aircrafts and less fuel use. It also allows for parts with interior structures to tailored to optimize weight distribution.
Several AM processes benefit product design and development. Rapid prototyping enables faster design verification, getting products to market sooner. Material jetting processes like PolyJet Technology allow companies to create high quality models in-house, saving time, money, and preventing IP theft.
Interested in AM processes and their benefits? Visit our Explore section to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about 3D printing.