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Terminology Debate

January 31, 2009

Filed under: additive manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 09:12


New terminology, especially in a fast-developing industry, can be a sticky issue. In the area of additive fabrication (AF), many “catch-all” terms have been and continue to be used to describe the technology. For many years, rapid prototyping (RP) was a popular term, and rightly so because prototyping has been the most popular application of AF technology. However, it is now only one of many applications. Consequently, a growing number of people are using terms such as additive fabrication or additive manufacturing when referring to the group of processes (e.g., fused deposition modeling, 3DP from Z Corp., laser sintering, etc.) that build parts layer by layer.


Stratasys and 3D Systems have adopted the term additive fabrication as a catch-all term, although I cannot say whether it has become an official corporate standard at either company. Maybe. The mainstream press—when AF technology is lucky enough to get included—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. Some think of the process from Z Corp. when hearing this term, while others may think of PolyJet from Objet Geometries.


I recently conducted an informal, non-scientific survey among the members of the rp-ml (an Internet mail list). I asked, “Which term do you think will become the most popular in 5-7 years? In other words, which catch-all term do you feel has the greatest chance of success as AF works its way more deeply into both technical and consumer markets.” The results are here.


As you can see, there is little agreement when it comes to terminology. It’s all over the place. One conclusion, however, is that “rapid prototyping” is not going to be the catch-all term in the future. It barely made the list. About one-third favored 3D printing, with most others carrying little weight.

Industry Standards

January 17, 2009

Filed under: additive manufacturing,manufacturing — Terry Wohlers @ 10:15

This week will go down as an important milestone. On Tuesday, January 13 in West Conshohocken (Philadelphia), Pennsylvania, a group of more than 70 individuals from the U.S., Europe, Japan, and South Africa approved the formation of an official ASTM Committee to create industry standards around additive manufacturing technologies. The need for standards has been argued for at least a decade. Finally, it is happening, and in a spirit of cooperation and sense of urgency. I could tell that people at the meeting were passionate and felt strongly about the need. Why else would have some of them flown 15 hours to attend the 1.5-day meeting?

If manufacturing applications have any chance of widespread acceptance at major corporations, standards and guidelines must be developed and adopted that will help ensure quality, consistency, and repeatability. Today, each organization must deal with these issues on their own as they attempt to force fit a wide range of prototyping machines and materials into manufacturing environments. Some have experienced degrees of success; most others haven’t tried.

ASTM International was established in 1898 and is responsible for 12,000 standards by technical experts in 115 countries. Through a process of consensus, standards are drafted and then voted on by the members of ASTM. Anyone from anywhere can join and participate. I was fascinated by the simplicity and effectiveness of the process. But then, it has been tested and fine-tuned for 110 years, so it should be good.

Those present at the meeting formed five subcommittees, each of which concentrate on terminology, testing, processes, materials, and design (including file formats). Creating standard methods of testing and comparing additive systems and materials is arguably the most important activity of this effort. Soon, users of these systems will have standards that guide them through a process that has been, at best, haphazard in the past, and certainly not universally accepted. The average length of time to produce an ASTM standard is about 11 months.

The results of the meeting will be published over the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can read the documents that led to this week’s meeting at wohlersassociates/astm.html.


January 3, 2009

Filed under: life,travel — Terry Wohlers @ 14:56


The following are some random observations from a November 2008 visit to Beijing, China. I hope you find them of interest.

  • On average, drivers in Beijing have had a driver’s license for three years.
  • Twenty percent of the cars in Beijing cannot be driven during the week. If your car’s license plate number ends in 1 or 6, for example, you cannot drive on Mondays. This rule does not apply to the weekends.
  • The skies above Beijing were much clearer than I remember them from previous trips in 1998 and 2002.
  • You see bicycles in Beijing, and in some places, many. But compared to 10 years ago, there are few. They’ve been pushed out by cars from Volkswagen, Audi, Shanghai-GM, Peugeot, and others.
  • The highways in Beijing, especially the major ones, such as the one to/from the airport, are in perfect condition. No expense was spared on bridges, overpasses, signs, etc.
  • When walking or running on the sidewalks and streets of Beijing, you really need to be careful. If you don’t, you’ll get mowed over by a car or bus, or worse, a three-wheel bike hauling a load of lumber or something else.
  • The French often meet for dinner at 9:00 pm, get served at 10:00 and wrap up at mid-night. The Chinese are at the other extreme. They meet for dinner early, begin eating almost immediately, and wrap up in a surprisingly short amount of time.
  • Relatively few Chinese can speak or read English. A Chinese friend created written instructions for my cab drivers.
  • Prices have gone up dramatically, yet much of what you buy is still 2-4 times less than in the U.S. That’s how inexpensive it was before. A can of Chinese beer at the hotel is $1.50, compared to about $.25 ten years ago. A 20-25 minute cab ride is about $7.

Beijing is a fascinating city. The Summer Games brought about significant improvements to its infrastructure. If you plan to go to Beijing in the future, be sure to visit Olympic Park to see the Bird’s Nest, Water Cube, and other striking architectural structures. The new terminal at the airport is the most impressive I’ve seen anywhere. Click here to see a few images from the trip.