Additive fabrication, more popularly known as 3D printing, is a method of producing physical objects from a variety of materials, usually one layer at a time. Additive fabrication begins with a plan (3D model data) and gradually adds material - according to the plan - until a finished object is formed.
This is in contrast to more traditional subtractive fabrication which starts with material and a plan - perhaps as simple as an idea - and proceeds to shape (or subtract) material until a finished object is formed. From stone age axes to today's high performance milled metal parts, this has been the dominant method of fabrication for thousands of years. Although additive fabrication is still in its infancy, it is poised to challenge traditional technologies in a number of areas. In fact, in certain areas such as rapid prototyping, it already has become the technology of choice.
The keys to additive fabrication are the abilities to model three dimensional objects and to precisely position and bind together component materials. Advances in computer technology and 3D CAD modeling in particular have made easily produced digital 3d models a reality. Advances in industrial machinery and materials technology have made precise positioning of a variety of materials a reality.
Today, cutting edge additive fabrication machines can produce objects with resolutions rivaling precision milling and molding. They can do this with a variety of materials from plastics to metals and even glass. Some of the advances, even in the last five years are astounding. That said, it is important to understand that while the Star Trek-like possibilities of additive fabrication seem limitless, the technology is still young. Build envelopes are still measured in tens or hundreds of cubic inches and productions times are still measured in minutes to hours - or even days.
Additive fabrication has come a long way - and for some applications it is already a viable choice - but it still has a plenty of room for improvement. However, based on the recent rate of advancements the future of additive fabrication is indeed bright.
For a sober but still exciting overview of additive fabrication and some of the future possibilities check out Christopher Barnatt’s short piece at ExplainingTheFuture.com. Or, if you'd really like to understand the industry, go to the expert, Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates, Inc.(like us, also in Colorado). He produces and annual report on the state of the industry and his website has lots of interesting information.
Why do we like the term "additive fabrication" better than "3D printing"? Well, we could say that it's more technically correct (it is - but not quite as correct as the ASTM-sanctioned term "additive manufacturing"). Or we could say we're better than using colloquialisms (we're not).
In reality, it's simply because we've found it's much easier to explain this technology to the uninitiated without first going through questions like "do I need glasses for that" or "do I have to focus my eyes funny to see it". People just seem to have difficulty getting past the 2D paradigm associated with "printing" regardless of whether it's prefaced with "3D".
"Fabrication" gets people into the 3D 'making things' paradigm with "additive" being a useful term to compare and contrast with more traditional 'subtractive' processes. Once we get to that point we'll often use "additive fabrication" and "3D printing" interchangeabley. If you're already there feel free to use whichever term you like; we'll still understand you.