Analysis: Is It “3D Printing” or “Additive Manufacturing”?

By on August 27th, 2019 in Ideas

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 What’s the right term to use?
What’s the right term to use?

Every few years we have to revisit this eternal question: should we refer to our beloved technology as “3D Printing” or “Additive Manufacturing”?

The two terms seem interchangeable recently, and I often find myself alternating between terms, even within the same story. Of course, this likely generates much grief in our Managing Editor, but that’s how it is in the industry today. (See how I didn’t name the industry there?)

[Interjection from Managing Editor: that interchangeability isn’t the source of the grief; see my ruminations from a few months ago, including industry expert input, about the terminology of technology for a full discussion.]

First, a bit of history.

Many years ago neither term was used, and instead the technology fell into the realm of “Rapid Prototyping”. That technology included all sorts of milling equipment that was USED for rapid prototyping, but wasn’t all that rapid at times.

Eventually companies started making new names for their processes. One company, Concept Laser (now part of GE Additive), uses the “LaserCUSING” term, for example. But it didn’t catch on, as it was too tightly associated with that company. The term “3D Printing” came from MIT originally, and caught on popularly. I did hear that early 3D print companies were experimenting with search results and found through A/B testing that “3D printing” seemed to resonate more with search engines and online clickers.

Thus when the technology exploded around 2009 when key patents expired, the term “3D Printing” was most often used. It’s still widely used today.

But the companies using the term “3D Printing” back in 2009 were mostly desktop equipment manufacturers. Those devices were essentially useless to manufacturers as their reliability, quality and material choice were all poor. These companies frequently went out of business as so many entrepreneurs attempted to get into the business at that time.

Meanwhile, the manufacturers of industrial-scale equipment — the very ones who owned (or still owned) the major patents — desired a way to differentiate their often superior technology from the crappy desktop tech of the day, and it’s around then we started to see the words “Additive Manufacturing” appear.

As I said, today these terms often seem interchangeable. Sometimes you will see a desktop manufacturer use “Additive Manufacturing”, while at other times you’ll see an industrial machine manufacturer use “3D Printing”. There’s really no difference, although some might propose there is. [Our Managing Editor among them.]

One way to judge this critical scenario more scientifically is to explore Google’s incredibly useful Trends service. This service shows the relative number of search requests received for a given search term over time. You can see how a term becomes popular, and then dies off.

The results were VERY interesting this time.

First, let’s do a basic comparison of the terms “3D Printing”, “Additive Manufacturing” and “Rapid Prototyping” since 2004. This is what we get:

 Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in all searches
Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in all searches

There’s a few things to see here. First, notice that “Rapid Prototyping” basically dies off as soon as the other terms emerge. As far as I can tell, no one seems to use that term as a general name for our technology these days.

But wait, this is showing worldwide. Is it different for the rest of the world? Apparently not.

Let’s probe a bit deeper, looking at the “News” category, which represents mentions of the search terms within what Google believes to be News stories:

 Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in News searches
Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in News searches

Whoa! What’s that huge boost during 2012-2016? That, dear readers, is literally the consumer boom of desktop 3D printing, where the magic technology was shown on TV daily. Of course, that died off after a while, and that death is seen in the Trends curves.

But what about within the research community? Let’s first look at the “Science” category:

 Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in Science searches
Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in Science searches

Hm, it seems that Science-based searches are really no different from the general public or news. What about within the industry itself? It turns out Google can’t go that deep, but we can select the “Business and Industrial” category:

 Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in Business searches
Google Trends comparing “3D Printing” and “Additive Manufacturing” in Business searches

Aha! Now we see something very interesting! It seems that within business, the term “Additive Manufacturing” has been steadily gaining over “3D Printing” for the past five years. We can see that the two are at the same level of popularity, search-wise, at this point, but the trend indicates that “Additive Manufacturing” might become more popular for the first time ever.

What might this mean for the [unnamed] industry? Perhaps if this terminology switch occurs, marketing masterminds might take this into account when naming products and issuing press releases and other marketing material. We could see a big shift here.

What’s your choice? And why?

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!