There’s no doubt about it — when trying to understand this industry, there's widespread confusion about the terms and what they really mean. And certain companies definitely aren't helping with their ever-inflating claims of who is using "3D printing" and when. The bottom line: Additive Manufacturing (AM) and 3D Printing (or more precisely, fused filament fabrication [FFF]) are two distinct processes that require completely different machines in order to operate successfully.
What Does Additive Manufacturing Do?
Additive Manufacturing is a process by which three-dimensional solid objects are created from a digital file for prototyping or production. It utilizes an additive process in which successive layers of material are laid down under computer control to create an object. In contrast, conventional machining practices (subtractive processes) begin with a block of material and remove portions to achieve the desired shape, leaving chips or swarf in its wake. It also refers to any one of several technologies that produce a three-dimensional object from a digital representation such as stereolithography, selective laser sintering, direct metal laser sintering, binder jet printing, or fused filament fabrication.
What Does 3D Printing Do?
3D Printing is a generic term that describes technologies used to make three-dimensional objects from a digital file. These processes include fused filament fabrication (FFF), selective laser sintering (SLS), and direct metal deposition (DDM). Note: these technologies are not considered AM as they do not rely upon successive layers of material being laid down under computer control.
What About Fused Filament Fabrication?
Fused Filament Fabrication, often referred to as FFF to those within the industry, is one type of 3D Printing technology that uses an additive process in which consecutive layers of material are laid down under computer control, to create an object. It works by depositing molten plastic or other materials in very fine lines (as small as 16 microns) to build the parts layer-by-layer. Think of a hot glue gun, but on a much smaller scale.
Which Option Is Best For You?
Generally speaking, Additive Manufacturing is used for prototyping and short-run production. It's more expensive than FFF but the difference in price is quickly made up as time goes on. Crystalline structures such as metals, ceramics, and highly detailed resins are typically produced via AM because of its ability to build parts with those materials. Fused Filament Fabrication is best suited for functional prototyping and low-volume runs (1-5 pieces) due to its speed and low cost. While it can produce some relatively complicated details, they usually lack the surface smoothness of parts produced via AM methods.
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