Additive Manufacturing 101: What is AM and what does it portend for the future?

With all the buzz around Additive Manufacturing, many people are left scratching their heads. So, what is Additive Manufacturing? Well, sometimes the obvious is camouflaged by its obviousness. The most important thing you need to know about Additive Manufacturing (AM) is that it is exactly what its name says it is.

Look at it this way: Many traditional manufacturing techniques are largely subtractive. They involve shaping an end product by removing parts of the core material until the product is revealed. For example, consider milling, which starts with a solid piece of steel, wood or other material, and then removes layers or pieces using various techniques and tools until the product is formed.

Additive Manufacturing is the polar opposite of subtractive manufacturing. Rather than subtracting or detracting, it adds. AM – also known by the names of its various subsets, such as 3D Printing, Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM), Rapid Prototyping (RP), layered manufacturing and additive fabrication – creates a product by adding to, not subtracting from. AM builds up whatever you are wanting to build, trying to build, or dreaming of building, layer by layer – and in the case of advanced nano-level AM, molecule by molecule.

So, what’s the big deal?

Although the broader societal impact was still years away and a reality the larger world was still far from understanding, the development of Additive Manufacturing was earth-shattering for scientists and inventors. Why? Because previously, proof-of-concept models for new technology involved extremely long and costly manufacturing processes. With the birth of AM, suddenly a model of a new car part or lab tool could be created and held in a researcher’s hands within hours — and at a reasonable or ridiculously low price compared to previous manufacturing costs.

Yet this industrial phenomenon went beyond just getting more bang for your buck. AM also enabled the creation of more complex and lighter designs which were previously too difficult to create using traditional machining, dies, molds, or milling. In a very real way, the advent of Additive Manufacturing made it possible to achieve the level of technological sophistication we so often take for granted today.

How did it all begin?

While it entered mainstream prominence in recent years, AM has actually been around since the early 1980s. It even achieved a significant milestone before the turn of the new millennium. But we’ll get there in a minute. Sometimes you have to look back to see forward.

The father of Additive Manufacturing is Hideo Kodama, a researcher affiliated with the Japanese Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. Kodama published research in 1981 documenting his work with a rapid-prototyping system that used photopolymers to build models layer-by-layer. Remember, this is about Additive Manufacturing.

Shortly thereafter, in 1984, Charles Hull applied for a patent on a process he called stereolithography. Stereolithography uses a concentrated beam of ultraviolet light directed into a vat of photopolymer resin to create the desired object from the bottom to top layer. Stereolithography operated according to digital instructions derived from an early version of Computer Aided Design (CAD) software.

After patenting this technique, Hull founded the world’s first 3D printing company, 3D Systems, and an industry was born. Our own founder and CEO, Avi Reichental went on to lead 3D Systems for over a decade before establishing XponentialWorks. He remains a seminal leader in this field.

From the 1980s through 1999, numerous AM milestones were achieved – from  advances in the substances used to create 3D models, the techniques which create additive layers, and the computer software that executes the whole process. The potential applications of this rapidly-evolving technology seemed unlimited for so many industries – including aerospace, transportation, and notably, medicine. In 1999, researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine produced the world’s first implantable human organ based on a 3D-printed structure. In this case, it was the synthetic building blocks of an artificial bladder. This was just the beginning of the tremendous impact AM would have on the world as we know it.

Now where is Additive Manufacturing heading?

The widespread adoption of simple-to use home or office 3D printers and large-format 3D printers is today changing entire industries. In fact, it’s changing our very way of life.

Today, the speed of AM is enabling a revolution in flexible tool-less manufacturing at scale. Ultra-large format 3D printers are on the horizon, and will one day be used to print almost anything. For example, 3D-printed houses, and eventually, entire neighborhoods. Bio-3D printing will one day produce not only implantable human organs customized to each patient, but also convincing and delicious 3D-printed steaks and burgers. Metal-based 3D printing will overtake plastic-centric 3D printing, and become fully integrated into worldwide manufacturing operations.

At the end of the day, the thing to keep in mind with Additive Manufacturing, is that it will not subtract but add to our lives. And sooner than you think.

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