Additive Manufacturing vs. 3D Printing: Is there a Difference?

3D printing and additive manufacturing are two terms often used interchangeably. But are additive manufacturing and 3D printing really the same thing? We’re here to take a deep dive into 3D printing and additive manufacturing to help you better understand how these two terms relate to each other.

What is 3D Printing?

By definition, 3D printing refers to ‌the process of creating a three-dimensional object from a digital model (such as a CAD drawing). They put the drawing into the 3D printing machine, and it slices the object into thin layers. The machine then lays these thin layers of material down in succession to create an end object.

A variety of materials are used to create these models, including metal powders, thermoplastics, and resins. Common 3D print technologies include:

  • FDM (fused deposition modeling): A print technology that extrudes a thermoplastic filament to create the layer-by-layer model.
  • SLS (selective laser sintering): A polymer powder print technology. Pre-heated to its melting point, it is selectively melted with a CO2 laser, fusing the particles together to create a solid part.
  • SLA (stereolithography): A print technology where a photosensitive liquid resin is solidified under an ultraviolet laser.
  • PolyJet: A print technology that uses liquid photopolymers and builds parts by depositing the ultrafine droplets of these liquid photopolymers on a build platform through the print head(s).

3D printing is generally used for small-scale operations and wouldn’t be used to describe many of the larger-scale operations that use 3D printing in their manufacturing workflow.

What is Additive Manufacturing?

On the other hand, Additive Manufacturing features 3D printing as an element of its overall process. But it encompasses so much more than just 3D printing. Additive manufacturing requires 3D printers, but they are only one part of the term. Additive involves a much more complex and in-depth industrial manufacturing process, including the entire print workflow. It encompasses multiple processes, while 3D printing refers to only a small part of the process.

These operations involve more than creating 3D models, which can include:

  • Modeling (CAD drawings)
  • Material traceability
  • The workflow
  • Post-processing or finishing steps such as clear coating, painting, polishing, and heat treatments
  • Quality and inspection systems

So What’s the Difference?

3D printing uses an additive process to create an end product, but it is not always additive manufacturing. However, everything that is made in additive manufacturing is considered 3D printing.

We can conclude that 3D printing refers to smaller-scale, at-home printing operations, while additive manufacturing has been used to refer to large-scale or industrial manufacturing. This means context is important when you’re differentiating between the two terms.

So while they both refer to similar processes, they are (albeit subtly) different. To determine which term to use, consider the context of what you’re looking to describe. When referring to an operation that has a full workflow with multiple steps in a manufacturing or industrial setting, you should use the term additive manufacturing. For an operation that creates one-off models or is a hobbyist operation, you would use the term 3D printing.

 

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