What is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM) is defined by ASTM as the “process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data, usually layer upon layer, as opposed to subtractive manufacturing methodologies, such as traditional machining.” Additive manufacturing is also known as rapid prototyping, additive fabrication, layer manufacturing, freeform manufacturing and 3D printing.

Additive Manufacturing is thus a process to manufacture parts rapidly by taking a 3D model of a part, slicing that model into thin layers and then building that part layer-by-layer in a machine, choosing from a variety of materials. AM allows a user to “print” a physical representation of any CAD model. Depending on the AM process used, the part can be manufactured in a range of materials and can be used in a number of applications.

he technology is historically known as Rapid Prototyping. This is due to the fact that prototyping was the main use of the manufactured parts. The main advantages of the process were that prototypes could be manufactured with no tooling and with very short lead times (compared to conventional manufacturing technologies). However, recent advances in the technology allows users to manufacture parts from real engineering materials such as Nylon, Polycarbonate, ABS and even metals such as titanium, aluminium, stainless steel etc. These recent advances have allowed AM to be used as a production manufacturing process, rather than being only a prototyping tool.

Some of the advantages of using AM include:

Short lead times – Products can be manufactured with very short lead times. Typically, lead times are in the order of days, or even hours, rather than weeks as is the case with conventional technologies.
No tooling – Products can be manufactured without any tooling which has a big impact on the cost of the parts.
High complexity – Highly complex parts can be manufactured. Even parts than cannot be manufactured using conventional methods.
Freedom of design – Typical design rules does not apply to AM. Almost any shape can be manufactured.
Moving parts – Fully functional parts can be manufactured that include moving parts, such as intregrated joints and couplings.
Customization – Different configurations and versions of parts can be manufactured without additional costs as no tooling is required.
Materials – A wide range of materials is available including polymers, plastics, flexible materials, metals etc. A wide range of colors are available and it is even possible to print full color models.