Categorizing 3D printing

3D printing used to be called exclusively rapid prototyping. This fitted with the primary use case of 3D printing at the time. Nowadays we see many uses of 3D printing and the industry is adapting to these new use cases. New machines are introduced focusing on these new categories. In this post I want to give an overview of these categories.

First of all equipment is going to specialize in four categories:

  • Functional part printing — manufacturing of functional parts which are used as part of an assembly of larger product. Companies like Stratasys and EOS are already mainly focusing on this category.
  • Manufacturing support printing — 3D printing is not only about printing parts which are the last step in the manufacturing process. There is a category for printing parts which support other production processes like casting and molding.
  • Prototype printing — traditionally 3D printing was used to create prototypes for product design or as validation of a mass-produced functional part. The market need has not changed and is still valid.
  • Specialized printing — this is category is already increasing in importance and will increasing more. In this category belongs printing of dental implants and ceramic filters.

The current line up of equipment from the different manufacturers of 3D printers is already showing a shift in the direction of these four categories based on the capabilities of their printers. The marketing of their equipment is in some cases still confusing and unfocused.

It is to be expected that most powder based technologies like SLS and DMLS are going to focus on the functional part printing. The same applies to FDM printing as well.
The current line up of jet technologies like 3D Systems’ ProJet and Objet’s Polyjet are more prototype technologies. Also ZCorp’s 3DP technology is very much focused on prototyping.
Specialized printing has a more variety of possible technologies from jet technology for creating dental wax models, to powder based printing for dental implants or ceramic filters. The same applies to the manufacturing support printing processes. Powder-based processes are used to create molds for casting while wax jet printers are used to create wax models for casting.

In the coming years I see a new category emerging named Product printing. The focus in this category is to produce end-user ready parts which need none or very limited post-finishing. It is in this area where I expect the most excitement around. But to get there are some major breakthroughs necessary.