Additive Manufacturing FAQs

Although it’s a technology which has been around for several decades, there’s a lot of mystery and confusion around additive manufacturing and what it can actually do. Here are some of the most Additive Manufacturing FAQs (frequently asked questions).

What is additive manufacturing?

As briefly explained in our FAQsAdditive Manufacturing is a process of creating a structure or product using technology which builds the item up layer by layer.

Using a combination of special machines – often referred to as printers – and computer software, complex shapes can be created. Lasers heat up the material which is held in a cartridge, then superfine layers are placed down in a cross section. This cross section is gradually built up from the bottom to the top, with the software instructing the printer where and when to lay down the material.

Very complex shapes can be created in this way and in the past where welds may have been required to join together separate components, a single piece can now be cast using Additive Manufacturing. This means there’s not just greater strength but far more intricate shapes can be created than with conventional production means.

An example of an intricate shape with this 3D flower

An example of an intricate shape with this 3D flower

What materials can be used?

The materials which are to be used to create the product need to be loaded into the printer and capable of being laid down in microscopic layers. This typically means a powder or a liquid form.

Polymers and metals are two of the most commonly used materials, with the former more popular in the consumer market and the latter used in industry. However, there are a number of other materials which could potentially be used too including ceramics, glass, resin or ultimately even human cells.

How do the materials create the finished item?

There’s a number of different processes which can be used in Additive Manufacturing, but as a general rule, as the material is laid down, it needs to be fixed into position.

Binders can be extruded along with the raw materials which harden and hold the structure together. In some cases, sintering or melting processes are used which liquify the powder, allowing it to set in the required shape.

Lasers are used to melt or sinter the materials into the required shape, sweeping over the cross section and fusing the powders into the design which matches the software model. Once each minuscule layer has been treated with lasers, the bed moves down a single layer – often just a fraction of a millimetre – so that the next lot of powder or liquid can be printed out.

Supports can sometimes be required whilst the printing is in process; these can be removed or dissolved once the process is complete leaving only the finished structure.

Are additive manufacturing and 3D printing exactly the same thing?

3D printing is a far more consumer-friendly phrase and it’s one which has become popularly used for additive manufacturing in general.

In reality, there are some subtle differences and the term “additive manufacturing” can be used to refer to other processes such as Rapid Prototyping whereas 3D is far more restrictive.

The two phrases have been defined as:

  • 3D printing: “fabrication of objects through the deposition of a material using a print head, nozzle or other printer technology”
  • additive manufacturing: “making objects from 3D data, usually layer upon layer”

Although there are differences, very often the two phrases are used interchangeably, particularly in the popular press.

A sculpture produced using 3D printing techniques

A sculpture produced using 3D printing techniques

Is 3D printing just a gimmick?

Although it can be used for a wide variety of superficial uses, and many of these have been used to demonstrate the wide range of potential with Additive Manufacturing, it has a number of potentially vital uses.

In medicine, tissue cells and bone have been regrown with the use of Additive Manufacturing, and there’s potential that in the future organs could be created from special stem cells this way. If this becomes possible, transplant waiting lists could be a thing of the past, and the possibility to recover following an illness or an injury will be far greater.

Additive Manufacturing is one of the biggest potential developments in modern medical science.

But its uses also extend to other industries too with aerospace, defence and the automotive to name but a far which already rely on it. Any industry which requires precision engineering has the potential to become transformed with the use of Additive Manufacturing.

3D printed steering wheel, just one example use of Additive Manufacturing in the automotive industry

3D printed steering wheel, just one example use of Additive Manufacturing in the automotive industry

Why use Additive Manufacturing?

Additive Manufacturing offers a number of advantages over traditional manufacturing methods, such as flexibility, speed and cost reduction.

Because Additive Manufacturing is by definition an additive method, there’s far less wastage. Any powder left over in the machine can be reused for the next project so there’s nothing which needs to be scrapped. Conventional methods are subtractive, removing material to get the final result. This can result in up to 90% of the material ending up in the bin.

But material economy is only one reason why Additive Manufacturing is so much cheaper for companies. The precision which can be offered means that the quality is better, and the overall production time for getting an item to market is slashed.

The flexibility over the design also means that there’s no need to have a “one size fits all” approach,  enabling companies to create custom moulds and tooling easily and cheaply, resulting in more cost-effective processes.

Will Additive Manufacturing replace traditional methods of manufacturing?

In some cases, this may well be the case because of the many advantages offered by the technology.  However, certainly at present, Additive Manufacturing wouldn’t totally replace existing manufacturing methods.

Although Additive Manufacturing is very quick at low volumes, it can’t yet match the rapid production at high volumes. It may contribute to the process by helping to create a prototype, or the moulds, but the technology won’t be used for the actual production when large numbers are required.

In addition, Additive Manufacturing doesn’t yet have the elegant design features that can be achieved with conventional means. Multi-colour Additive Manufacturing printers are just started to become more advanced and improving the final appearance but conventional methods certainly still have the edge in this field, at least for now.

If you have any further questions please feel free to get in touch. We will add further FAQs as time progresses. Please feel free to call us on +44 (0)1489 779 696 or complete our online enquiry form instead.


Image Credits: Wikipedia, Wikipedia and Gerry Gaughan