What Do You Call It?

By Terry Wohlers, President, Wohlers Associates

The "Wohlers" column is authored by Terry Wohlers for Time Compression.
This column was published in the May/June 2009 issue.

People are using many names to describe a particular industry that’s suffering an identity crisis. I’m talking about the fast-growing industry involving a class of technology that joins together or solidifies liquids, powders, or sheets, layer by layer, to form parts. Examples are fused deposition modeling from Stratasys (www.stratasys.com), the jetting of materials from Objet (www.objet.com) and Z Corp. (www.zcorp.com), and laser sintering from EOS (www.eos.info) and 3D Systems (www.3dsystems.com). For some time, the industry has been uncertain about what to call itself or the technology it represents. Among the terms used are “additive fabrication,” “additive manufacturing,” “3D printing,” “freeform fabrication,” and “layered manufacturing.” Others, such as “rapid prototyping” and “rapid manufacturing,” focus on an application of the technology, making them awkward to use as a catch-all term. Also, conventional machines, such as CNC milling and injection molding, can be very rapid for prototyping and manufacturing. 

“3D printing” is becoming a popular term, and some expect it to develop as the most accepted umbrella term in the future. In January 2009, I conducted an informal survey via an established email list server, asking, “Which term do you believe 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 the technology works its way more deeply into both technical and consumer markets?” Forty-nine people from 14 countries provided 20 different terms. Thirty were from North America, 15 from Europe, two from South America, and one each from the Middle East and Asia. Sixteen of the respondents chose “3D printing” as their favorite. Five selected “additive manufacturing,” four “additive fabrication,” and four “rapid manufacturing.” All other terms received three or fewer votes and 13 received only one vote. So you can see, there’s little agreement in the industry, but there was one exception: The once popular “rapid prototyping” barely made the list, so the respondents do not see it as the catch-all term of the future. 

Much of the CAD industry prefers to use “3D printing” most of the time. At SolidWorks World 2009 in January (www.solidworks.com), “3D printing” was mentioned frequently by the keynote speakers and SolidWorks customers New Balance, Sony Ericsson, and toy manufacturer MEGA in the general sessions. Even the two speakers from Discovery channel’s Prototype This television show talked about 3D printing. SolidWorks founder Jon Hirschtick named 3D printing as one of four key trends that will impact the future of CAD.

One potential problem with “3D printing” is that, among industry insiders, it currently refers to a group of systems that are relatively low-cost, office-friendly, and easy to use. Others have an even narrower definition, thinking of it as a machine that uses an inkjet print head such as those from Objet, 3D Systems, and Z Corp. According to our research, an estimated 74% of all systems sold in 2007 were classified as a “3D printer,” using the “low-cost, office-friendly” definition. Each year, this percentage increases, and it won’t be long before more than 90% of the systems installed will be considered 3D printers, using this definition. I believe this growing popularity supports the idea of using 3D printing as the catch-all term.

Two recent developments might influence the terms that are used. One is the establishment of ASTM Standards Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, which was formed in January 2009. More than 70 individuals from the U.S., Europe, Japan, and South Africa came together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to launch the industry standards effort around the technology. Those attending the meeting approved “Additive Fabrication Technologies” for the descriptive part of the committee name. It could change, but it would require consensus approval by the entire committee. Another recent development is the Roadmap for Additive Manufacturing (RAM) Workshop held in March 2009 in Washington, DC. The effort focuses on creating an industry roadmap for the next 10 to 12 years, with the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research as the main sponsors. With “Additive Manufacturing” as part of the name, those involved, as well as readers of the roadmap, might be influenced. About 60 opinion leaders and experts from academia, industry, and government attended and are a part of creating the roadmap.

So, why not go with “additive manufacturing”? Companies including Stratasys, 3D Systems, and others use additive fabrication. At Stratasys, it has become an official corporate standard. Right or wrong, I made the decision in 2005 to use “additive fabrication” for all my publications, presentations, and communications. However, I am completely open to change and will adopt another term if it makes sense to do so.

What about “3D printing”? Some people, especially researchers, argue that it’s fine for those who are non-technical, but they prefer a term that better reflects a wide range of processes, including the production of metal parts. For them, “3D printing” does not get it done. For the mainstream press and layman, however, it’s simple and easy to understand. So, it’s possible the industry will end up with two: an official standard name and one that becomes a de facto standard.

What do you think?

Visit Time Compression and let us know what your preferred term is. We’ll publish the results in the next issue of the magazine.