Additive Manufacturing

Learn about the techniques and benefits that bring products to life.

What is Additive Manufacturing?

Additive manufacturing (AM) describes the technologies that build 3D objects by adding layer-upon-layer of material to build products. Once a file is produced using a 3D modeling software, the additive manufacturing machine (otherwise known as 3D printers) reads the data from the file and lays down successive layers of material to create a 3D object.

While the technology was first introduced in the early 1980's, its first uses were focused on prototyping and as a way to visualize models in preproduction. Since then, additive manufacturing has evolved and is being used to create end-use products across almost all industries.

Products created using additive manufacturing techniques can be made in a variety of materials, from plastics to metals to ceramic. The technology is fluid and still evolving, and new materials are introduced at a more rapid pace than ever before.

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Technique and Process

Additive manufacturing begins with a computer-aided design (CAD) file, which is used as a blueprint to create products. The 3D printer uses the file blueprint to lay down thin layers, measured in microns, of material to build the final 3D object. The materials may range from powders to liquid to sheet.

The term additive manufacturing encompasses many technologies including subsets like 3D Printing, Rapid Prototyping (RP), Direct Digital Manufacturing (DDM), layered manufacturing and additive fabrication.

Additive Manufacturing Processes

Stereolithography (SLA)

An additive manufacturing process which employs liquid ultraviolet curable photopolymer "resin" and an ultraviolet laser to build parts one layer at a time. For each layer, the laser beam traces a cross-section of the pattern on the surface of the liquid resin. Exposure to the UV laser light cures and solidifies the pattern traced on the resin and fuses it to the layer below. After the pattern has been traced, the platform drops slightly (the distance is generally equal to the thickness of a single layer) and a resin-filled blade sweeps across the cross section of the part, re-coating it with fresh material. On this new liquid surface, the subsequent layer pattern is traced, again fusing it to the previous layer.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

A technique that uses a laser sinter powdered material, aiming the laser automatically at points in space defined by a 3D model, binding the material together to create a solid structure. Using a high power laser to selectively fuse thin layers of powdered materials, the laser scans cross-sections generated from the file on the surface of a powder bed. After each section is scanned, the bed is lowered and a new layer of material is applied. The process repeats until the object is completed. SLS is a great use for rapid prototyping and for low-volume production of component parts.

Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS)

While the process is similar to SLS, 3D objects created through DMLS are in metal. Using the same laser sintering technology, metal powders are fused together to build objects. This process is also referred to as Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLA) sometimes. The files are "sliced" into layers and downloaded into the machine to begin building. This process is great for detailed, geometric designs that would otherwise be very difficult to do with metals.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Objects created through FDM are produced by extruding small strings of melted material, which harden immediately, to form layers. The machines have a plastic filament or metal wire that is unwound from a coil to supply material to the extrusion nozzle, and can turn the flow of material on and off. The nozzle is heated in order to melt the material, and can move in both horizontal and vertical directions to build from the bottom up.


A process that spray photopolymer materials onto a tray in very thin layers until the 3D object is built. Each layer is cured with a UV light after being extruded allowing models to be handled and used immediately. A support material that is built to support complicated designs can be removed by hand and water jetting after the object is complete.

Binder Jetting

This term explains a process in which layers of material are bonded by selectively depositing a liquid binding agent to join powdered material. This process of additive manufacturing is capable of printing a variety of materials, such as metals, sands and ceramics. While other additive techniques use a heat source to bind materials together, Binder Jetting does not employ any heat during the build process. This process provides the ability to print large parts and can be more cost effective than other methods.

Use and Benefits

Additive manufacturing offers consumers and professionals alike the ability to create, customize and/or repair products, and in the process, redefine current production technology. It is a means to create highly customized products, as well as produce large amounts of production parts. Products are brought to market in days rather than months and designers save money by using additive manufacturing instead of traditional manufacturing methods. In addition, the risk factor is much lower and those involved can receive near-immediate feedback because prototypes take less time to produce.

For those looking to do rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing is extremely beneficial. The technology lends itself to efficiently create quick prototypes, allowing designers and businesses to get their products more quickly. When done in a large printer, multiple parts can be done at once in less time.

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Who Needs It?

A variety of industries use additive manufacturing to fabricate end-use product, consumer and otherwise, including aerospace, architecture, automotive, education, game and medical industries. The technology is popular among design and architecture firms as well. Industries and businesses that build products and prototypes, as well as short run and on demand manufacturing of components benefit from the use of additive manufacturing.

What We Do

At Shapeways, our mission is to make additive manufacturing accessible to everyone. Our factories house industrial-sized 3D printers that can print hundreds (sometimes thousands) of products at once, in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.

Products can be 3D printed in more than 50 materials and finishes, including our Strong and Flexible Plastic in a variety of colors, Porcelain, Full-Color Sandstone and a variety of metals. Additionally we offer support for anyone interested in using the technology, from large companies to small business to independent designers. We offer customization tools that allow you to create truly unique products, an API to help you power a business on Shapeways, a variety of tutorials to to get the best form our platform and more.

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