Since the early 2010s, there has been a significant rise in the usage of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, across a variety of industries. This has been driven by access to 3D printing services, desktop printers, and easy-to-learn 3D modeling tools. The barrier to entry is significantly lower than other manufacturing methods because 3D printing only requires a CAD (computer-aided design) model and is relatively unrestricted by traditional manufacturing design rules.
It is important to know what processes are defined as 3D printing to understand why some of these advantages exist.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is an umbrella term for a method of making parts by joining materials, usually layer by layer, using a 3D model as a guide. For example, laser powder bed fusion processes, like Selective Laser Sintering, create parts by etching a cross-section profile of the model into a heated powder bed. Then, the level bed is shifted down, a new layer of material added to the surface, and the etching continues. In other cases like material extrusion, which includes Fused Deposition Modeling, a heated polymer filament is extruded and zig-zags to the shape of a cross-section. This process is then repeated for each layer until the part is formed. This contrasts with subtractive manufacturing, where a large stock piece is shaped, cut, or formed through a die to create the part. The most common example is machining, where a bar or rod stock piece is cut using endmills, drills, and other cutting tools to create a final shape. Machining can also produce tooling used for the injection molding process.
Just like traditional manufacturing, 3D printing processes each have unique strengths and trade-offs. The advantages listed below, however, are generally true for all types of 3D printing.
3D printing is a great tool for building on-demand parts, accurately rendering purposeful features, and reducing significant upfront barriers to manufacturing. However, 3D printing works best in a marketplace with traditional manufacturing, where the two types complement each other depending on the individual project requirement. Innovations like Xometry’s AI-driven MaaS platform, as well as advancements in additive technologies, enable more flexibility in design, materials, and production for custom manufacturing.