3D Printing

Talking of …. 3D Printing Vernacular

My time at the Nottingham International Conference on AM and 3DP this week included not a few conversations about the general technology terminology surrounding the 3D printing industry.  According to many of the great and the good across the industry 3D printing is not the right vernacular with which to label their activities within said industry. After years of debating RP / RM, then AM / FFF / 3DP, it seemed the world had settled on 3D printing, with choruses of halleluiah, not least from me! Now, though, it seems many gurus at the centre of the industry are churning this issue up again. This is because the much talked about hype around “3D printing” is inflating expectations among non-experienced 3D printing people and thus demands that differentiations are made between the low end of the market (desktop machines that churn out (relatively) poor quality parts and pieces and the high end of the market, where aerospace and medical grade components are being produced on additive machines, in metal and high functioning plastic materials and multi-materials.

Many are making the point that “Additive Manufacturing” should be used along side 3D printing, not synonymously with it, to differentiate between machine capabilities and distinguish the high end manufacturing machines and their applications and capabilities from the desktop “toys”. I take their point on board, but pointed out that many desktop 3D printer users are producing end use products, albeit in low grade plastic, and at poorer resolution, and that these products are therefore manufactured, additively, and they don’t like it very much but don’t deny it.

At one point we even got into etymology around the terms (I learned a lot) and it did become obvious that being literal with any of the terms would not work … for instance, peeling it back to just “manufacture” and the original term refers to something that is “made by hand” — well, that just doesn’t work at all in terms of today’s manufacturing of goods, but it is still universally accepted and understood.

Generally speaking I concur that there is a problem with inflated expectations of 3D printing at large. It is a bit of a pain to repeatedly explain to people not already in the know that a MakerBot / Ultimaker et al 3D printer is not what BAE will be printing its drones with, or what Airbus is currently manufacturing in-flight components with or any of the other hugely impressive industrial applications that have emerged over the last 5-10 years. However, now and for the foreseeable future, it is not the terminology that matters any more, that’s pretty much settled, according to the world (lots of howls at that one when I said it) but rather it is about defining and explaining the application (industrial manufacturing / mass customization / personalization / prototyping / learning / playing) and where it fits in to the 3D printing hierarchy of processes and materials.

Well, that’s what I think. There are plenty that disagree. As usual.

P.S. A full review of the conference will follow soon – it’s about half written.