Term Wars: 3D-Printing, Additive Fabrication, Fabbing, Rapid Manufacturing, Layered Manufacturing

Ecample of additive fabrication
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:

Additive fabrication (AF) refers to a group of technologies used for building physical models, prototypes, tooling components, and even finished series production parts—all from 3D computer-aided design (CAD) data, medical scans, or data from 3D scanning systems. Unlike CNC machines, which are subtractive in nature, AF systems join together liquid, powder, or sheet materials to form parts that may be impossible to fabricate by any other method. Based on thin horizontal cross sections taken from a 3D computer model, AF machines produce plastic, metal, ceramic, or composite parts, layer upon layer.

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):

AF processes are being used for a range of applications including concept design and modeling, fit and function testing, patterns for castings, and mold and die tooling. They are also used for fixture and assembly tools, custom and replacement part manufacturing, special edition products, short-run production, and series manufacturing. Prototyping is one of many applications and that's why "RP" is no longer suitable in most instances as a catch-all term. In fact, many companies resist the idea of using a prototyping method for part manufacturing, so using this term could stifle AF's transition to manufacturing applications.

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.

… A growing number of people are using terms such as "additive fabrication" or "additive manufacturing" …  The mainstream press — when our industry is lucky enough to get included in it — uses "3D printing" most frequently. Among industry insiders, 3D printing refers to a group of AF processes that are relatively low cost, easy to use, and office friendly …

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:

3D printing 7,930,000
Rapid manufacturing 567,000
Additive fabrication 441,00
Fabbing 88,000
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.

By | 2018-06-14T11:10:45+00:00 Januar 8th, 2009|Fabbing, Technologies & Enablers, User Manufacturing|

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.