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For the past fifteen years, we have struggled with the name for the processes formerly known as rapid prototyping. Every article and every discussion tends to start with “3D printing, which is also known as additive manufacturing…” It is not a problem, but it is an inconvenience that gets in the way of clear communications.
It is time to put this to rest. It is time to accept and agree on a name to apply to additive technologies. While we are closer than ever to resolving this ongoing debate, one question remains. Will the term be 3D printing or additive manufacturing? I propose that we use both.
Before I explain this proposal, let me be clear that 3D printing and additive manufacturing are not the only terms bantered about, but all others are slowly falling into disuse. However, under my proposal, many of the alternatives will continue to be used, but they will be used in very specific contexts.
For example, the two problems with the use of “rapid prototyping” as the general term will become the reasons that it remains in our lexicon. Rapid prototyping locked our industry into a single application (prototyping) and a single benefit (speed). Going forward, it will be used as an additional descriptor under the 3D printing or additive manufacturing umbrella that clarifies the application that is being addressed.
Now, the first thing to consider under this proposal is that, like it or not, those in the additive manufacturing industry can only influence what term is used. A consensus of industry experts would be meaningless because the media and the masses will make the choice for us. The frequency of use in articles, blogs and conversations will ultimately decide whether we are in the 3D printing or additive manufacturing industry.
This popular opinion is not a conscious choice. Instead, it flows from factors such as how easy it is to say; how descriptive and depictive it is; and how well it creates a mental image of the process.
With that said, it appears the decision has been made. 3D printing is clearly the term of choice for consumer media, everyday conversations and some vendors. Yet, amongst industry professionals and in the inner circles of industry associations and standards organizations, additive manufacturing has taken hold. Between experts, additive manufacturing also has the characteristics of being easy to say, descriptive and depictive.
Considering this rift, I propose that the industry adopt both terms. I propose that we select the appropriate name from the context of the communication and the participants in the conversation. Let’s use 3D printing for the world at large and use additive manufacturing when talking with industry professionals.
Under this arrangement, 3D printing becomes the default when communicating with a broad audience or those not in design and manufacturing. Instead of fighting the tide of popular opinion, we go with the flow. The world at large has cast its vote, so we stick with 3D printing.
At the same time, we embrace additive manufacturing when speaking with seasoned veterans, industry experts and manufacturing professionals. Using the phrase this way, we have a “secret handshake,” a way of conveying that we have a deep understanding of the technologies, processes and applications. It marks us and those we are speaking with as knowledgeable practitioners and educators. Additive manufacturing becomes the signal that the conversation can shift into jargon-ladened, detailed descriptions.
In both cases, the name is the umbrella term for every aspect of the industry. They are synonyms that by definition convey that objects are produced with additive technologies, period. Using these names in this way avoids any association with a specific application, process type, technology class or benefit.
However, like many synonyms, our industry terms will have subtle distinctions relative to each other. They take on the context of the audience for which they are intended. For example, when a presenter speaks of 3D printing to an audience of “makers,” interjection of additive manufacturing will imply more demanding applications that use high-end systems. Likewise, when two experts are debating additive manufacturing applications, a reference to 3D printing will infer less demanding applications performed by less expensive machines.
From this point forward, I will enact this proposal in all future columns, assuming that I have the support of the TCT Magazine’s editorial staff. I will use additive manufacturing in all future articles since this is a publication for industry professionals and those with a thirst for a deeper appreciation of all that the technology can do. And when I write about 3D printing, you will know that I am talking about applications and machines that have mass-market appeal.
Neither you nor I have decision-making power on this issue, but we can influence the outcome. We can cast our votes on terminology by using 3D printing and additive manufacturing consistently and in the right context. And if my proposal is rejected— if 3D printing becomes the sole term— I am comfortable with that outcome. Consensus is all that I want; consensus on a name that unites us and puts an end to the distraction that hinders awareness of the power and possibility of additive technologies.
Todd Grimm is President of T. A. Grimm & Associates, which offers additive manufacturing and 3D imaging consulting and communications services.