What is Additive Manufacturing?

08-05-2020 |   |  By Moe Long

3D printing has become increasingly popular. While it’s a growing area for at-home makers, 3D printing is often applied to industrial production, a process known as additive manufacturing. Through adopting 3D printing in industrial production, additive manufacturing allows for improved systems as well as parts. Learn about additive manufacturing, from what it is to how additive manufacturing is being used!

What is Additive Manufacturing?

Simply put, additive manufacturing fuses 3D printing with industrial production. This technique results in overall enhanced products that are customised. Since computer-aided design (CAD) technology or 3D object scanning is employed in additive manufacturing, exact geometric shapes may easily be reproduced. Then, once a 3D model is ready, the object in question may be generated through a process where the material is deposited layer by layer until the entire unit is complete. 

Contrastingly, subtractive manufacturing involves removing bits of material from a solid block until the final product is finished. There are several methods for subtractive manufacturing, although the most frequently used is CNC machining, such as drilling, milling, and boring. Aside from CNC machining, other subtractive manufacturing methods include laser cutting, water jet cutting, and electrical discharge machining (EDM). The main difference between subtractive manufacturing vs additive manufacturing is that additive manufacturing deposits material layer by layer to create a unified whole, whereas subtractive manufacturing chips away at a solid block until the desired object is finished. 

What is meant by additive manufacturing: 3D printing a CAD object, building it layer by layer, rather than removing material from a solid block to make an object. 

How Does Additive Manufacturing Work?

Additive manufacturing typically involves a CAD object that’s translated using software to a 3D printable design. In turn, this file may be sent to a 3D printer, where a 3D printable material is deposited layer by layer until the final object is complete. Conventional 3D printing material includes plastics like PLA and ABS, liquid resin, metal, wood, or even food. There’s a digital to physical transformation with a digitised design rendered as a physical object by a 3D printer. With more traditional FDM printers, a material, commonly filament, is deposited through a nozzle in successive layers on a print bed. A resin-based 3D printer instead uses ultraviolet light to cure liquid resin into a solid object. Or, metalworking is another additive manufacturing option, where metal-based powders are melted to form a whole solid layer by layer. 

What are the Advantages of Additive Manufacturing?

There are a number of advantages to additive versus subtractive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing drastically simplifies the supply chain. In a small-scale operation, it’s as essential as a computer and a 3D printer. The ideation to the manufacturing process can be shortened substantially. You can create virtually any geometric shape, and at a range of sizes, from small objects that print in a few hours to designs that take days to complete. It’s this flexibility which truly benefits additive manufacturing. 

Moreover, whereas subtractive manufacturing in small batches isn’t cost-effective, additive manufacturing in tiny amounts is just fine. You can print a single object, or scale up exponentially. A great example of additive manufacturing in practice is NASA’s use of 3D printed spacecraft parts that are assembled in orbit. Often, the parts required for spaceships are pretty specific, and printing them in a more traditional subtractive manufacturing method isn’t cost-effective. Additive manufacturing, however, allows for specialised parts to be printed on-demand. 

What are the Disadvantages of Additive Manufacturing?

But additive manufacturing isn’t perfect. While small batches are much more feasible to produce, scaling up can be a challenge for additive manufacturing. It can be accomplished, but not at the same speed with which subtractive manufacturing enables production scaling. Then, there’s quality assurance. Often, additive manufacturing requires post-processing which can range from minor to substantial. On the flip side, subtractive manufacturing requires little post-processing. 

Adding it All Up - Additive Manufacturing Explained

Additive manufacturing is a complete game-changer. It’s a much more cost-effective production solution for smaller lots of items than a traditional subtractive manufacturing process. And through reducing the supply chain dynamic to virtually a PC and a 3D printer, going from ideation to production is much faster. However, there are limitations, notably when scaling up. Creating large lots can be difficult in additive manufacturing since post-processing might be labour-intensive. But it’s not just startups utilising additive manufacturing. Major industrial players such as NASA have adopted 3D printing as a means of generating customised items for a reasonable cost. Overall, additive manufacturing could be the future of prototyping.

Your turn: How have you seen additive manufacturing revolutionise the manufacturing industry?

By Moe Long

Moe Long is an editor, writer, and tech buff with a particular appreciation for Linux, Raspberry Pis, and retro gaming. When he's not hammering away at his keyboard, he enjoys running, reading, watching cinema, and listening to vinyl. You can read his writings on film and pop culture at CupOfMoe.com and check out his thoughts on movies on the Celluloid Fiends podcast.

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