3D Printing Defined
The hype surrounding 3D printing some ten years ago led to many misconceptions about the technology — and inordinately high stock prices. Not surprisingly, the prices came down to earth, and laypeople were disillusioned to learn what 3D printing could do was not what the media said. So, what, exactly, is 3D printing?
3D printing is the additive process of joining materials to create objects based on digital models. The joining occurs layer by layer, with one layer of material added to another in a continuous process. This additive process distinguishes 3D printing from subtractive and formative manufacturing technologies such as machining, casting, and molding. The objects are the 3D printer’s physical output, created using digital models, typically computer-aided design (CAD) files and scan data.
Many engineers and others will tell you that "additive manufacturing" is a more accurate term, and it is, in industrial applications, but most businesspeople know the process as "3D printing." This distinction is essential when you seek management support for 3D printing in your operation. For example, a chief finance officer focusing on revenue and cost is not interested in definitional subtleties, whereas a manufacturing manager responsible for producing quality products certainly is.
Similarly, your audience many not realise that the ISO/ASTM standards organisation recognises seven core 3D printing technologies. The distinctions are important when considering 3D printing metal, plastic, composite, or other materials. Unlike a CNC machine that can work with plastics and metals, most 3D printers have a narrow and exclusive range of printable materials.
Moreover, vendors have developed proprietary versions based on the ISO/ASTM standards. Within metals alone, there are 50 versions, with the latest being Xerox’s liquid metal 3D printing technology. Given the broad range of capabilities and materials, your 3D printing journey should begin with the end in mind: What you want to make determines the technology that can produce the part.