Additive Manufacturing vs. Traditional Manufacturing

Article by Bettina Warburg

Additive manufacturing is a powerful force changing how we make parts and products in many different industries. To some, however, the differences between additive manufacturing and more traditional manufacturing methods aren’t especially clear. Below I explain how additive manufacturing  distinguishes itself from more familiar methods of manufacturing.

What Sets Additive Manufacturing Apart Physically?

Additive manufacturing operates by adding layers of material together to make an object. Traditional manufacturing methods, by contrast, are subtractive in nature. Subtractive manufacturing involves removing parts of a block of material in order to create the desired shape. Cutting wood into useful shapes, for instance, is a very simple example of a subtractive process.
Even though all additive manufacturing involves creating parts layer-by-layer, there are many different types of additive manufacturing. For example, manufacturers use fused deposition modeling to quickly create plastic parts, while using direct metal laser sintering to join layers of metal powder together.

Creating Complex Geometries

Needless to say, the basic physical difference in how objects are made with additive manufacturing also produces some major functional differences. The most important of these functional differences is that additive manufacturing can be used to create complex geometries that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with traditional manufacturing methods. These complex geometries are often stronger and lighter than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.
Strongly related to its ability to create complex geometries more easily than other manufacturing methods is the fact that additive manufacturing eliminates the additional costs normally associated with creating more complex objects. With traditional methods, a highly complex part typically costs much more to make than a very simple one. But in additive manufacturing the process is identical regardless of the complexity of a part. Thus, additional cost is no longer a factor.

Other Functional Differences

Another major functional difference between additive and traditional manufacturing methods is the fact that additive manufacturing involves far less material waste. We effectively render a material waste byproduct when removing it in a subtractive manufacturing process. Additive manufacturing only uses the material necessary to create a part, ensuring that waste is very minimal. Parts that require support structures for printing, however, will still involve an appreciable amount of wasted material.
With additive manufacturing, it is also possible to print full moving assemblies. Traditionally, firms must manufacture each part of an assembly separately and then assemble them later on. However, with a 3D printer we can combine the manufacturing and assembling stages into a single process.
A final important functional difference between additive manufacturing and other manufacturing methods is the fact that additive manufacturing can be used to easily create customized products. Mass manufacturing techniques that companies currently employe create large numbers of identical products but offer little room for customization. In contrast, given their ability to print objects of any configuration from scratch, 3D printers are ideal for customization.  One well-known example of a brand making use of this capability is Normals, a company that manufactures personalized earbuds that are fitted to the shape of individual users’ ears.

Differences in the Equipment Required

Additive manufacturing also differs from traditional manufacturing methods in terms of the technology that we use to facilitate it. Traditional manufacturing processes can often require several steps, each using a different machine. In metal machining, for example, turning, milling and drilling are frequently used in concert to create a finished metal part. In additive manufacturing, however, a single device handles all aspects of creation.
By extension, additive manufacturing involves less labor than traditional manufacturing. 3D printers create parts in a completely automated manner, requiring little oversight from an operator. By contrast, traditional manufacturing requires a different skilled laborer to operate each individual machine used.

Differences in Business Applications

Additive  manufacturing lowers the barrier to entrepreneurship and product development. Using 3D printers, businesses can prototype and produce their products using a single piece of equipment, rather than investing in an entire factory setup. In fact, thanks to a host of 3D printing service companies that have arisen in the past several years, small businesses can even make use of additive manufacturing without the initial cost of buying the equipment themselves. Two of the most prominent companies that have taken advantage of the rapid prototyping abilities associated with additive manufacturing are the Ford Motor Company and the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation.
The fact that customization is fairly simple when using additive manufacturing has also allowed many businesses to create personalized products for their customers. Customization is an easy way for businesses to add value and create a better user experience. And 3D printers reduce the costs of that customization significantly.

Two Different Models of Manufacturing

Arguably the greatest difference between additive and traditional manufacturing is decentralization. We can deploy the 3D printing devices that make additive manufacturing possible locally, rather than in large, centralized factories. As a result, manufacturing can move closer to end users. Through this model, manufacturers can shorten their supply chains and cut down on the costs associated with shipping logistics. Decentralized manufacturing is also an advantage for businesses that operate in remote locations, such as oil companies, as this model of manufacturing makes it possible to provide spare parts much more quickly than centralized manufacturing can.These are the critical differences that set additive manufacturing apart from most traditional manufacturing processes.