Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a transformative approach to industrial production that enables the creation of lighter, stronger parts and systems.
It is yet, another technological advancement made possible by the transition from analog to digital processes. In recent decades, communications, imaging, architecture and engineering have all undergone their own digital revolutions. Now, AM can bring digital flexibility and efficiency to manufacturing operations.
Additive manufacturing uses data computer-aided-design (CAD) software or 3D object scanners to direct hardware to deposit material, layer upon layer, in precise geometric shapes. As its name implies, additive manufacturing adds material to create an object. By contrast, when you create an object by traditional means, it is often necessary to remove material through milling, machining, carving, shaping or other means.
Although the terms "3D printing" and "rapid prototyping" are casually used to discuss additive manufacturing, each process is actually a subset of additive manufacturing.
While additive manufacturing seems new to many, it has actually been around for several decades. In the right applications, additive manufacturing delivers a perfect trifecta of improved performance, complex geometries and simplified fabrication. As a result, opportunities abound for those who actively embrace additive manufacturing.
How does additive manufacturing work?
The term “additive manufacturing” references technologies that grow three-dimensional objects one superfine layer at a time. Each successive layer bonds to the preceding layer of melted or partially melted material. Objects are digitally defined by computer-aided-design (CAD) software that is used to create .stl files that essentially "slice" the object into ultra-thin layers. This information guides the path of a nozzle or print head as it precisely deposits material upon the preceding layer. Or, a laser or electron beam selectively melts or partially melts in a bed of powdered material. As materials cool or are cured, they fuse together to form a three-dimensional object.