In an interesting contribution to the "Rapid Prototyping mailing list" (rapid.lpt.fi), Terry Wohlers, CEO of Wohlers Associates, Inc., a technology consultancy, comments on the difficulties to find an appropriate term for a technology that has been covered often in this blog, as it is a key enabler of both mass customization and new forms of user innovation.
This technology refers to the group of processes that builds parts layer by layer direct from 3D data, without the need for tools or molds. Terry, who prefers the name additive fabrication, describes these technologies as follows on his web site:
I previously used the term "rapid manufacturing" for these technologies. This term should show the evolution from "rapid prototyping". For many years, AF technologies have been used in most cases to quickly build a prototype during a new product development process. Today, however, prototyping is only one of many applications for these technologies. In his posting to the mailing list, Terry discusses what the best term is – and concludes that it should be "3D-Printing". Here are some excerpts (in rearranged order):
This may be the reason why he also resists to the term "rapid manufacturing" (and, when reading his comments, I also agree that this term is not precise enough, as also a good old injecting molding process is very "rapid"! The term also has been used for very different manufacturing concepts). EOS has been proposing the term "e-manufacturing" to focus on the fact that the parts are produced directly from 3D-data. But also a CNC machine is doing so.
The term "additive manufacturing" is fine, although because manufacturing is an application and not a technology, I believe it is plagued with problems, similar to "rapid prototyping." Consider, for example, this sentence: "My company is using additive manufacturing for manufacturing." It's confusing. Now, consider this: "My company is using solid freeform fabrication for manufacturing." Much cleaner.
I'm not suggesting that we use "solid freeform fabrication;" I'm using it here to illustrate a point. I believe it works much better when the catch-all term does not include the name of an application. That way it can be used cleanly for all applications of the technology.
Since 2005 I've used the catch-all term "additive fabrication" in our company's publications, presentations, and communications. It's not perfect, but it works. In the future, I truly believe that "3D printing" will become the most popular term. When I'm describing AF technology to … someone I'm seated next to on an airplane, I use 3D printing because there's a better chance that he/she will understand what I'm saying. It's simple and easy to say. I prefer it over alternatives, but 3D printing currently means something else to many people in our industry.
This is likely to change. An estimated 74% of all systems sold in 2007 were classified as a 3D printer and each year this percentage increases.
I believe these comments make a lot of sense. I cannot promise that I will not any longer use "rapid manufacturing", but I think that "3D printing" (in a non expert environment) and additive fabrication in a technical context are very good terms to describe where I am excited about. And fabbing is nice jargon when you want to refer to additive fabrication and stay cool.
And Google is confirming this claim. Here are the number of hits when you search for the terms:
Rapid manufacturing 567,000
Additive fabrication 441,00
Layered fabrication 36,400
Rapid Prototyping: 1,620,000
This said, however, an important disclaimer: I do not think that these new technologies will solve all problems of MC manufacturing or become the dominant fabrication technologies. For rather a long time, they will remain niche technologies, and low-cost or advanced subtractive technologies like laser cutting or CNC machines still provide plenty of great opportunities for customized manufacturing.