The difference between traditional manufacturing and 3D printing can be seen as a matter of choosing between subtraction or addition. Rather than taking large pieces of solids—plastic, wood, metal, or whatever—and carving pieces out of them, 3D printing uses lasers or electron beams to melt down powdered substances and put down the melted material layer by succeeding layer until the shape is finished. As a result, while the term “3D printing” is still used for the creation of prototypes, the process of creating end products using the technology is now known in industry as additive manufacturing, or AM for short.
According to Terry Wohlers, principal of Wohlers Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in 3D and additive manufacturing, one way you can judge the increase in interest is by the number of companies now selling industrial-grade 3D printers—machines selling for $5,000 or more. According to the Wohlers Report 2018, an estimated 1,768 metal AM systems were sold in 2017, compared with 983 systems in 2016, an increase of nearly 80 percent. Wohlers adds, “In 2016, 97 companies sold machines. Just a year later, 135 companies worldwide sold industrial-grade machines. So we’re seeing a lot of growth in the number of system manufacturers.” He also pointed to an increase in materials suppliers and in investments in additive manufacturing from major corporations.
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