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On the Meaning of the Word 3D Printing, Additive Manufacturing, Rapid Prototyping (and RepRap)

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While I was at Inside 3D printing, on assignment last week, I had a fascinating exchange with SLM Solutions Director of Engineering and Product Management, Dr.-Ing. Jan Wilkes, about the correct meaning of the word 3D printing.

We mostly discussed their amazing quadruple laser SLM 500 HL machine (you can read the interview next week on 3Dprint.com).

Should a machine that makes parts this large in metal, like the Concept Laser XLine 2000, be considered a 3D printer?
Should a machine that makes parts this large in metal, like the Concept Laser XLine 2000, be considered a 3D printer? Or is that an understatement?

I used the term “machine” because the interesting exchange with Dr. Wilkes was about the use of the three most common terms that define digital, additive manufacturing technology. My impression is that producers of very high end machines generally don’t love the terms “3D printing” and “3D printers”. That’s because, of course, they somewhat feel like it downplays the incredible capabilities of these machines (which – mind you – melt an atomized, often highly explosive metal powder, with a high powered laser, to a precision of just a few micron, in an inert gas atmosphere).

At the same time they also use the term 3D printing, as it enables reaching out to a wider demographic of possible adopters and customers. As this technology, that was once available only to the gods, now is within reach of you, me, and anyone really. I am not saying anyone could afford a metal 3D printer (even though the smallest ones start at around €150,000-200,000, not so different from a plastic based SLS system) but just about anyone could afford access to one if they really needed to.

This one by 3D Systems is even an open platform
This ProX 500 by 3D Systems is even an open platform for materials

The term 3D printing caught on in the mass public’s collective consciousness as it depicted the idea of a machine creating an object. Most of those who have discovered 3D printing since the term was invented do not use “additive manufacturing”, as it brings back to an idea of enteprise and work, instead of fun.

Then there is rapid-prototyping, which was the first term used to describe 3D printing and still is 3D printing’s number one application by far. The terms are sometime considered interchangeable but are they really? I think they are but I also think that they each have different shades of meaning of their own.

All for 3D printing

Does Renishaw call its 500 Watt yetterbium laser RenAM a 3D printer?
Does Renishaw call its 500 Watt ytterbium laser RenAM a 3D printer?

I use 3D printing to indicate two things. One is the general term to describe all industrial, consumer, maker and prototyping activities involving any machine that creates objects adding layer by layer of material and following the instruction of a digital file. In this sense bioprinting is 3D printing, PCB printing is 3D printing, contour crafting is 3D printing like additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping are 3D printing.

The other meaning indicates just those B2C and C2C activities. This includes desktop 3D printers, mini-me statuettes, artistic and design expression and all reprap and maker digital additive fabrication (yes, digital additive fabrication is another term which could encompass them all).

Enter Additive Manufacturing

Is this a 3D printer? Or is it just a worker in a digital factory?
Is this a 3D printer? Or is it just a worker in a digital factory wielding four lasers?

I think that this term was created when, instead of making one prototype, someone decided to make ten of them. While the term itself simply describes the idea of manufacturing something layer by layer, Additive Manufacturing also carries within itself the idea of serial manufacturing. That is its future and its present.

Rapid prototyping and 3D printing services alike are stating to discover the idea of the additive factory, a place where series of products (all alike or all different, it does not matter) are manufactured digitally and additively. This means that the large industrial machine manufacturers can rest easy. This term is not going to disappear, replaced by a general understating of this technology’s capabilities. Rather it is going to thrive as additive factories have only but begun to exist and they are going to be everywhere.

Is this 3D printed castle a rapid prototype or was it additively manufactured?
Is this 3D printed castle a rapid prototype or was it additively manufactured?

Prototyping Prototyping

The terms “rapid prototyping” was, in a way, the first prototype of a general term to encompass all different 3D printing processes. More and more, though, it is becoming a term used to describe the entire digital production cycle: from idea to sketch, to topologically optimized CAD design or personalized, generative, 3D model, to STL, to phsyical product, to finished, functional, augmented product.

This term no longer describes just a number of different approaches to prototyping but an entirely new way of thinking about a product. This is also why we differentiate between “Rapid Protototyping Service, 3D printing Services and 3D Printing Factories in this directory). Of course there are many more shades of meaning to this but I will leave you with an anecdote to ponder how different an yet how similar all 3D printing is.

The SLM Solutions’ SLM 500 HL quadruple 400Watt laser machine prints many of its own parts. Especially some of the most complex internal ones or other relative simp ones (such as this four tube connector in the photo below. Does that put it on the road to reprap?






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