What’s In A Technology Name?

The good news is that a technology by any other name might perform as sweet, to riff off of Juliet’s centuries-old question — but we still have to ask: what’s in a name?

This question comes up all the time when
talking about manufacturing processes used today, especially those newer to
shop floors like 3D printing. (Or is that additive manufacturing…or rapid

Let’s start at the beginning. This technology suite traces its current roots back to the 1980s when processes like stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) were being developed. These technologies found their initial usage in prototyping applications, achieving faster results than traditional processes. As these and other layer-by-layer approaches developed and matured over the last few decades, applications evolved as well, including into end-use production.

Throughout this briefly laid out history, we
see several stages of evolution in both process and usage. At each stage, a
different name has been appropriate, growing along with the fledgling industry
surrounding these technologies. Now that we’re in 2020, though, and have four
decades of experience in this maturing manufacturing area, we’re able to take a
step back and look at what the best terminology is to use today.

Printing or Additive Manufacturing?

A question that comes up a lot is simple:
“What’s the difference between 3D printing and additive manufacturing?”

At the simplest level of response, these terms
are often used interchangeably. Use either phrasing and anyone in the industry
will understand what you mean. But of course, there are ways to be more
accurate in discussing these processes, and more precise in nomenclature.

3D printing is the process of actually
building up a part, as a step in the overall additive manufacturing workflow.
Additive manufacturing itself can be seen to encompass the total process: CAD
design to slicing to 3D printing to post-processing to finished product. Rapid
prototyping would then be an application, rather than referring to the process

That’s one way of looking at it, and
understanding what is meant when any of these terms are bandied about.

Another way is in terms of the user. Additive
manufacturing is recognized as a more industrial term, and tends to encompass
expensive professional machinery being used in applications from prototyping to
end-use product production. 3D printing can refer to the process of
layer-by-layer building of an object, or more generally to refer to any usage
of this technology, from hobbyists using inexpensive desktop systems to
professionals using industrial equipment. Rapid prototyping was one of the
first terms used for these technologies, which in the 1980s were...