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3D printing is any of various processes in which material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with material being added together (such as liquid molecules or powder grains being fused together), typically layer by layer. In the 1990s, 3D printing techniques were considered suitable only for the production of functional or aesthetical prototypes and a more appropriate term was rapid prototyping. Today, the precision, repeatability and material range have increased to the point that 3D printing is considered as an industrial production technology, with the name of additive manufacturing. 3D printed objects can have a very complex shape or geometry and are always produced starting from a digital 3D model or a CAD file. There are many different 3D printing processes, that can be grouped into seven categories:
The term "3D printing" originally referred to a process that deposits a binder material onto a powder bed with inkjet printerheads layer by layer. More recently, the term is being used in popular vernacular to encompass a wider variety of additive manufacturing techniques. United States and global technical standards use the official term additive manufacturing for this broader sense.
Additive manufacturing doesn’t replace other manufacturing methods (at least not for many years to come, and there is this thing called hybrid) but leads to a wealth of new opportunities. Moreover, some objects would be almost impossible to make without additive manufacturing.
Additive manufacturing and 3D printing are used in multiple domains (healthcare, construction, retail, defense, pharma, automotive industry, aerospace, making parts in close to any area you can imagine, including human tissue and food, smart manufacturing). They are also the subject of intensive research and development (methods, materials, new techniques, application areas, etc.).
Given its inherent capabilities and benefits, additive manufacturing – or 3D printing if you prefer – is often touted as a revolution across industries and, of course, in smart manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is also typically mentioned as one of the main Industry 4.0 technologies that have an important place in the smart factory. In manufacturing, leading use cases for 3D printing are prototypes, aftermarket parts, and parts for new products.