3D printing and rapid prototyping are often confused as the same thing, however they are somewhat different. 3D printing is a method of additive manufacturing, whereas rapid prototyping is an application of this technology. 3D printing is a newer, more cost effective method of additive manufacturing. The original additive manufacturing process, stereolithography, was extraordinarily expensive and complex. Due to that cost and complexity, the only viable application was rapid prototyping. The quick turn around time of this process made it ideal for generating prototype parts. However, the high cost of the machines and the materials prevented significant market acceptance.
Back in 1989, Stratasys co-founder Scott Crump patented a 3D printing technique called fused deposition modelling (FDM), which builds parts layer-by-layer from the bottom up. This new process was the first “3D printing” technology, so named because the parts were created by depositing material in layers, in much the same way as 2D printers deposit ink on paper. Through this process, thermoplastic filament is heated and extruded to produce a physical counterpart of a 3D computer-designed model.
Since those early days of 3D printing, several new technologies have entered the marketplace, including selective laser sintering (SLS), direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), and polyjet or multijet modeling. Each of these technologies has its advantages and disadvantages with regards to different applications. However, the the wide array of newer additive manufacturing methods yields a number of applications beyond rapid prototyping. In an earlier post, The Top 5 things You Should be doing with a 3D Printer, we discuss a variety of different applications, such as patterns for castings, injection molding, blow molding, end use parts, as well as jigs and fixtures.
So, as technology advances, additive manufacturing is finding its way into more and more applications in engineering as well as manufacturing. Based upon the variety of ways that 3D printing can be used, one can clearly see how rapid prototyping is simply one application of many for this new and evolving manufacturing method.
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