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What is additive manufacturing or 3D printing?

Selective Laser Melting

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Additive manufacturing (AM) is the industrial name for 3D printing and is the process where an object is manufactured by successively adding layers and fusing them together to form a solid 3D object. 


What is additive manufacturing/ 3D printing? 

Additive manufacturing (AM), often referred to as 3D printing, is used in conjunction with computer-aided design (CAD) technology incorporating a slicing software to create parts, components and prototypes. A wide range of materials are available to 3D print, which include polymer plastics, resins, metals and even some mixed materials.  

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) allows rapid product development from prototype to end product manufacture. It enables a proactive approach to changing markets and customer needs.  Not only does it permit form and function to be combined in ways which may be impractical to achieve using traditional methods, but it also allows for a degree of rapid customisation to meet the everchanging challenges of businesses in relation to lead-times and individual customer requirements.   

Additive Manfacturing or 3D printing also offers the possibility of streamlining the supply chain, including the manufacture of spare parts enabling distribution of components via electronic file transfer, which can be rapidly printed offsite and shipped directly to location. This increases production efficiency, reduces transport costs and warehouse space, saving both time and money. 


Different additive manufacturing/ 3D printing processes  

There are several different 3D printing systems – these include processes from VAT Photo-polymerisation, Binder Jetting, Powder Bed Fusion and Material Extrusion.  Although all from the 3D printing family, they are vastly different in process and subsequent product.   

At the 3M BIC, we house a number of different systems to give flexibility across a range of materials, including material extrusion, powder bed fusion and photo-polymerisation.  

Learn more about each of the several types of AM processes and how they differ, from 3D printing in metals to plastics: 

  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) 

Selective laser sintering or SLS is a technology that requires no support to build its parts as they are self-supported in the powder. SLS is excellent for creating complex parts, including interlocking or rotating internal parts, enabling a greater design flexibility over more traditional machining methods. This process is especially efficient in reducing lead times in relation to product development/proof of concept as multiple parts can be 3D printed at the same time. 

At the 3M BIC, we use our SLS machine for simple to complex component parts, working prototypes, tooling, jigs and fixtures, scaled architectural models, sensor housings, archaeological tools, training aids and models for promotional animation, to list just a few. 

  • Stereolithography apparatus (SLA) 

Stereolithography apparatus or SLA is the process of printing resin which is post cured via photo-polymerising light.  This system does require supporting structures within the build, however it creates highly detailed and ultra-fine demonstrative prototypes, especially in industries that require very fine detail finishes, such as jewellery, dentistry and miniature model making.  

Although this resin material does not have the mechanical durability of the SLS its smooth high-definition finish makes it an option for detailed projects.  The drawback with this technology, however, can be the brittleness of the parts which are created. It would be ill advised to use a photo-polymerised prototype in an application where an SLS prototype could be created instead.  

Our SLA machine has been used for test and prototype components plus fine detailed sculpture pieces and jewellery mounts. 

  • Selective laser melting (SLM) 

Selective laser melting (SLM), also known as powder bed fusion, is the term given to metal additive manufacturing/ 3D printing.  This technology uses the application of very thin layers of metallic powder alloys which are melted and fused via high power density laser beams.  The entire process is carried out within an enclosed controlled environment. 

Although the powder bed can give some support to the print, due to the weight and density of the material, support structures are usually required.  The term light-weighting and Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) builds crops up so that designers and engineers look towards finding the optimal design to eliminate support structures where they can.  However, supports can be removed via the post processing procedure alongside any specific heat treatment for annealing the part. 

This technology has potential across many industries and sectors including manufacturing, automotive and aerospace sectors where complex elements are algorithmically designed with consideration for light-weighting, with an increased functionality and huge leaps in efficiency. 

We have used our SLM machine for optimised proof of process, design development prototypes, self-supporting organic shapes, many into one mechanisms and prototype medical devices. 

  • Filament deposition method (FDM) 

Filament deposition method (FDM) uses a spool-fed method to rapidly heat and extrude plastic in layers to build components, with more materials being developed as the industry grows.    

Although seen as an entry level 3D printing technology, this process is great for rapid turnaround and development of parts.  Even though this system may not have the tolerance factor compared to other AM /3D printing methods, its advantages lay within the speed, ease of application and low costs.   

It is an ideal method for proof of concept or initial design, product development, test pieces and component prototyping.  FDM may also require support structures depending on the complexity and orientation of the part being printed  

During the pandemic in 2020, we used our FDM machines at the 3M BIC to create PPE products to support organisations during the Covid-19 pandemic.  


To find out more about the additive manufacturing/ 3D printing capabilities at the 3M BIC, drop the team a line at to arrange a FREE consultation. 

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