Whether you want to call it 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM), one thing we can all be certain of is the process of building an item by joining layers of material from a CAD file is dramatically changing the face of industry. Those in manufacturing and engineering are resetting the boundaries of what is possible as new techniques and materials are being developed with which to manufacture. So as we enter the fourth industrial revolution, and these methods become more and more prevalent, so too do the conversations about them. But is it 3D Printing or Additive Manufacturing? There is no right or wrong answer to this. In theory, they both describe the same process. But in practice, there are various situations and settings where one term is preferred to the other, and it all comes down to scale and precision.
This is the term preferred by those not in manufacturing or engineering; those into technology but not specifically manufacturing technology or Industry 4.0. In most cases 3D printing describes the fused deposition modelling (FDM) or fused filament fabrication (FFF) of smaller “desktop” 3D printers. These are smaller and cheaper (< $1000) but less precise than the techniques considered additive manufacturing. FDM and FFF both print by forcing molten martial out of a nozzle controlled by a computer and deposited in structured layers. These printers are the kind you would find in the home of an enthusiast but are predominately still used by industry for rapid prototyping – building early stage concept models to mimic the results of traditional manufacturing processes.
Additive manufacturing is 3D printing on an industrial scale and describes the more advanced techniques such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). SLS is the process of a laser sintering (forming a solid mass of material by heat before the point of liquefaction) powdered material at points in space defined by computer using a 3D design. This provides a more professional looking finished product, on which the building layers are much harder to see. AM provides results on a larger scale, with greater precision and with a wider variety of materials than FDM but is also much more expensive. Just like FDM, SLS can be used for rapid prototyping but at a later stage of development where higher precision and quality is required. SLS can even be used to 3D print discontinued or very difficult to find parts. A classic car enthusiast/restorer may be missing a vital part that the manufacturer stopped producing years ago. As long as a digital model exists, there’s a good chance an SLS machine can print it for you.
3D printing and additive manufacturing are interchangeable, you need not worry about saying the wrong term because they both describe the same process. 3D printing is generally used to describe the “entry level” processes such as FDM, whereas additive manufacturing is used to describe the advanced and more precise techniques like SLS. It doesn’t really matter though because 3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing and everything made with additive manufacturing is 3D printed.