Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing Are Two Different Things


And as AM continues to advance, the differences are becoming more pronounced and more important. 

It is time to confront a question at the heart of what this publication is about and what we are interested in. Namely: Is additive manufacturing the same as 3D printing?

The answer is no. The two terms describe two different things. And the difference is becoming increasingly important—as this month’s magazine issue shows.

To be sure, the terms overlap. They can be used in ways that make them sound like synonyms. But the relationship between them and the difference between them is this: 3D printing is the operation at the heart of additive manufacturing, just as “turning” or “molding” might be the operation at the heart of a conventional manufacturing process. In short, additive manufacturing requires and includes 3D printing, but it also entails more than 3D printing, and it refers to something more rigorous.

With this magazine, our focus is manufacturing. The promise we see in additive technology is manufacturing. And seemingly with each new development in the additive space, that promise comes more clearly into view. Now, we are beginning to see companies committing to additive manufacturing so fully that they are ramping up entire facilities oriented around this method of making production parts.

Two examples are featured in the August issue, located on two different continents. Our cover story on Tangible Solutions describes the questions and the hurdles a startup company faces as it aims to fully realize full-scale additive production. In this, 3D printing the component itself is arguably the most straightforward step. There is also the design of the support structures, the postprocessing operations and the considerations necessary to realize the process control sufficient for tight repeatability. Along with 3D printing, all of this is part of additive manufacturing as well.

Then there is the German company FIT, which is thinking about the promise to be found in the phase that comes next. If a facility can be set up to reliably and efficiently deliver contract manufacturing via AM, then couldn’t that very facility be reproduced in other regions to deliver short-lead-time production to customers in various places?

The FIT example in particular prompts another fundamental question about additive. Namely: Is the right way into AM by diversifying into it out of conventional manufacturing, or is the right way instead a clean-sheet approach involving a separate organization or separate company from conventional manufacturing teams?

(There are even shades of gray. Another company profiled in this issue, Arizona Home Floors, became a manufacturer once it complemented outsourcing of conventional manufacturing with a commitment to in-house AM.)

Which of the two choices is the better way? I don’t know the answer. None of us do. We will find out over time, and maybe either choice—building off of conventional manufacturing or taking a focused approach to additive—represents an equally viable way in. For now, you can consider the question yourself. After reading this issue’s articles about manufacturers taking a clean-sheet approach, read another recent story about a manufacturer that diversified into AM out of its success in machining. If one of these types of companies is able to succeed with the new approach to production more effectively than the other, then it might be that the business model is yet another element to consider in leveraging 3D printing into additive manufacturing.