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The Terminology Challenge

November 26, 2006

Filed under: additive manufacturing,future — Terry Wohlers @ 09:16

Rapid prototyping has served well as an umbrella term for a long time. In recent years, the application of additive technology has expanded beyond prototyping. Many companies are using it for visualization—not as prototypes—and for custom products and series production. It becomes awkward, even misleading, to say that you’re using rapid prototyping (RP) for the direct manufacture of products. What’s more, it is confusing to those who are new to the technology and industry.

Rapid prototyping is an important application of additive fabrication technology, but it is only one of many applications. A growing number of people are using additive fabrication as an umbrella term to encompass stereolithography, laser sintering, fused deposition modeling, 3DP from Z Corp., PolyJet from Objet Geometries, and other additive processes. I’ve been using additive fabrication because it more accurately describes the process. I’m not thrilled about the eight syllables, but I like it better than the alternatives.

Whichever umbrella term one chooses to use over the next few years, I believe it will be temporary. Long term, I believe 3D printing will prevail as the generic term of choice. It’s simple, descriptive, and easy to say. What’s more, 70% of all additive systems sold last year were categorized as a 3D printer. In the future, more than nine out of 10 additive systems sold annually will be a 3D printer.

In the short term, 3D printer will continue to mean what it means today to most people close to the technology: A relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use, and office friendly additive process that fabricates concept models and prototype parts. In the meantime, additive fabrication works well as an umbrella term to describe the wide range of processes that fabricate objects layer by layer.