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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

What's in a Name?

I mentioned the RP-ML last week, and it really is seeing a huge volume of posts over recent days. If this continues one might even be able to label it a full-on revival of the forum that had been seriously waning.

Talking of labels, that is just what the latest debate on the forum is covering. Once again the topic is what terminology is universally acceptable for additive processes. The thread has been met with the inevitable howls of anguish from individuals on the list that have seen/heard this discussion hundreds of times before. I did respond to the initial post posing the question as I am strongly of the opinion that this is an important issue, regardless of how many times it comes around and how long it takes to get a unanimous verdict. However, my post seems to have got lost in the ether — it may turn up, it may not — but having my own 'ether' space I have therefore decided not to waste the time spent writing it and post it here.

Under the thread title: Re: [rp-ml] milling=am?, it went as follows:

It's interesting, and inevitable, that this subject raises its head again. It will rumble on for some time yet — probably years rather than weeks or months. It's the nature of an emerging industry, and that is what we are all a part of.

Lino was absolutely right, a thread ran on the RP-ML at approximately the same time last year, titled: [rp-ml] International Terminology Standards. The thread was started by Terry Wohlers, in preparation for an upcoming ASTM meeting to try to start to establish universally accepted standards.

There are so very many variables here that it is hard to condense it all into a concise overview, but I'll give it a go.

The term Rapid Prototyping is the one that is most recognised as a result of its longevity. The problem with it is that "prototyping" does not cover all of the applications of additive technology today, for casting (Rapid Casting), tooling (Rapid Tooling) and final production products (Rapid Manufacturing). Originally, it was used to differentiate additive prototyping from traditional forms of creating prototypes, but now it seems to incorporate any method of making prototypes very quickly. This is another reason why many of the 'additive die-hards' have back away from the term!

Furthermore, there is a school of thought that "Rapid" is not correct terminology — for any additive application — because the processes themselves are relatively slow compared with other traditional and established manufacturing processes such as milling/machining etc. The "Rapid" was originally used to convey faster product development times and speedier time-to-market overall.

The quest last year seemed to be for a universal umbrella term for the additive technologies, of which 3D printing emerged as a clear contender, along with Additive Manufacturing on the responses from the RP_ML membership. I believe I am correct in saying that the ASTM meeting resulted in the consensus of Additive Manufacturing. Personally, I think that the additive processes themselves have gone in two different directions, the higher spec machines capable of manufacturing production parts (Additive Manufacturing), and the lower spec machines for concept and functional models (3D Printing / Rapid Prototyping).

What is interesting in the latest thread is that it has been started based on a quest for classification of additive AND subtractive processes, with both being accepted as legitimate options.

I don't think it is about hierarchy, it is just about labelling, and therefore clarity. Personally, I believe it is important to debate and ultimately establish the terminology, as it is the lack of clarity that has contributed to the slow understanding and therefore uptake of the technologies themselves (along with other factors such as entry level price points and patents - as discussed last week).


It's just my opinion of course, and subsequent posts from others involved in the ASTM and the resulting committee suggest that the industry is much further down the road to universal acceptance than I had anticipated (which is a good thing). However, disseminating, distributing and implementing the committees decisions still needs more work. There is still much confusion out there — hence the repetitive threads.

Additive Manufacturing is, it seems, the final decision, and is being used as the catch-all phrase for additive processes, regardless of application (prototyping, casting, tooling, manufacturing etc). I can get on board with this, I certainly don't think it is wrong, I would say, however, that as of today, I am not 100% convinced. I still think the industry is going two ways and I don't necessarily think it is vital to keep the two together. I think that the additive manufacturing and the 3D Printing markets can develop, grow and flourish with different "labels". It might even make them stronger!?

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