What is additive manufacturing?

Author: Shane Schick

An aerospace company may need to design parts that will withstand the toughest imaginable conditions. A medical firm could require a way to customize its approach to creating a new life-saving device.

Filmmakers want to create an unforgettable experience for audiences watching their next blockbuster movie, but it involves modeling sets and props through multiple iterations quickly.

These are just a few of the industries where additive manufacturing is creating new opportunities to innovate at speed in a cost-effective way that can also promote sustainability. As technologies like 5G and edge computing continue to advance, businesses are poised to make even greater use of 3D printing and manufacturing than ever before.

What is additive manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing is the process of taking a computer design file and using a 3D printer to turn it into a physical object.

An organization might start with an idea for a new part or piece of equipment, for example, which is visualized through a computer-aided design (CAD) application. A 3D printer can then divide the image into layers, which are then built one slice at a time. Material may be melted down (with a laser, for instance), as slices are fused together and then cooled down so they can be handled. Additive manufacturing can also help add value in prototyping and with small batch runs, which are really the backbone of all manufacturing, as opposed to high upfront set up costs associated with creating molds or other tools which are difficult to justify other than on long production runs.

Additive vs. subtractive manufacturing

This is in contrast to other methods of production. In subtractive manufacturing, for example, goods are produced by stripping or cutting away from a piece of raw material like a block of stone or a piece of metal. Machining, milling and carving are among the many different forms of subtractive manufacturing.

These traditional types of manufacturing can sometimes require firms to produce molds and casts that require considerable effort and investment. Once designed, it can be equally expensive or difficult to make changes in subtractive manufacturing.

The ease and rapid pace at which additive manufacturing can render designs has positioned it as a promising technology across the industrial sector. For example, 84% of manufacturers feel optimistic about the potential of 3D printing and manufacturing. Factors such as faster innovation, reduced lead times and cost per parts have been cited as game-changers by respondents.

3D printing and manufacturing approaches at a glance

As with any technology-driven process, organizations tend to adopt additive manufacturing differently based on their business needs and the materials involved.

Companies manufacturing products based on polymers and plastics may depend on what's known as powder bed fusion according to TWI, for example. Firms that use ceramics and metals as raw materials might opt for an approach called binder jetting.

Many of these approaches will also depend on the size of the object a 3D printer needs to create, as well as the number of hours or days that will be involved. If the ability to create prototypes quickly is the priority, an approach called material extrusion can be relatively inexpensive and efficient, according to TechTarget.

The transformative capabilities of additive manufacturing make it look like an area of emerging technology, but its history spans decades. A report from MIT's Sloan School of Management traced it to the late 1970s when it initially became known as rapid prototyping. Its growth has been driven in part by the sheer versatility of materials that can be subjected to the process, as well as the wide range of potential applications.1

Over the past 30 years, for instance, additive manufacturing has been used to produce everything from titanium parts for large aircraft to replicas of human organs used in critical surgeries.2 3D printing even allows manufacturers to produce items with different interior and exterior materials, which means they can be functionally graded.

How 3D printing and manufacturing are evolving

Manufacturers may be showing an interest in 3D printing because it addresses some of their most common pain points. Take productivity: Printers can run day and night, without a great deal of human intervention. Industrial firms can also potentially reduce the amount of waste in the production process, while also giving themselves more runway to experiment and improve designs before they are finalized.

Perhaps as a result, more than two-thirds (68%) of firms participating in a 2022 survey of engineering businesses said they increased their use of 3D printing in 2021 over the year before.

Additive manufacturing can also help provide more efficient spare parts management. Rather than needing a large warehouse with a massive inventory of parts that may only be used a handful of times, the parts can be created on demand, reducing waste and the cost of storage.

Complementary technology for 3D printing

The long-term growth of 3D printing and manufacturing may be further enhanced through the addition of complementary technologies. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have been used to help determine the ideal parameters for using new materials and to detect defects during the printing process. Augmented reality (AR) can help provide a visualization of objects, and even people, to allow for better decision-making and provide training opportunities. AR can also help people better envision what 3D-printed designs will look like before they are put into full production.

3D printers could also be connected to sensors and other devices that compromise the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Manufacturers focused on setting up "smart factories" based on the IIoT are often trying to streamline operations, and additive manufacturing could further those efforts.

The bandwidth, low latency, and real-time processing capabilities of 5G and edge computing could also make it easier for manufacturers to connect remotely with multiple 3D printers.

Innovating with Verizon

Manufacturers interested in exploring the benefits and use cases of additive manufacturing will benefit from finding a partner with the right technologies and experience. Verizon's 5G Ultra-Wideband is already powering research into new advancements in 3D printing at Penn State University, while students involved in the Verizon Innovative Learning initiative are also gaining access to 3D printers. Verizon’s 5G private wireless network services can also offer manufacturers additional security benefits.

Verizon has the advanced technologies and solutions to help manufacturers continue to innovate and keep their facilities connected, efficient, flexible and protected. Learn more about how Verizon can help unleash the next wave of manufacturing innovation.

The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.

Additive Manufacturing Explained,” MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA, December 7, 2017, accessed 18 May 2023.

2Custom 3D-printed heart replicas for patient-specific training,” MIT News, Cambridge, MA, February 22, 2023, accessed 18 May 2023.