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“3D Printing” – What’s in a Name?

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I devoted a section of the first chapter of my book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World, to what I call “The Name Game.”  My premise: “3D printing” is the best name for layered manufacturing.  As I explained, the other contender, “additive manufacturing”, is inaccurate and overly broad, and just plain dull.  A point I did not make in my book is that 3D printing and additive manufacturing are activities, like working or welding.  So the question remains:  what to call the machines that perform these activities?  This may seem like an academic exercise, but The Name Game is not really a game.  Finding the right name for this category of machines will not only help to drive their adoption, but can also help to shape what they will become.

Consider “telephone”, the name for a category of devices to send sound.  Or “television”, the name for devices to send moving images.  It’s hard to imagine that these devices could have any other names, especially not better ones.  Shakespeare rightly said that a rose by any other name would still smell good, but would a rose by another name sell as well on Valentine’s Day?  

And consider “record player”, “cassette player”, and “CD player”.  It’s pretty clear what those devices do, and each generation helped to drive the evolution of the category.  And the market preferred these simple names to “gramophone” and “phonograph”.

How about “computer”?  Not such a great name, really, for a category of devices that do so much more than compute.  But I have never been able to think of a better one.

And then there is “smartphone”, the name for a category of increasingly ubiquitous and can’t-do-without-it devices that enable communication and provide information to enrich and simplify daily life.  Apple would prefer that we think of these devices only as iPhones.  But whether we call them smartphones or iPhones, Steve Jobs saw, rightly, that the name for this category of devices helps to drive their adoption and affects what they can become.

This brings me to the name of the machines that do 3D printing, additive manufacturing, or layered manufacturing.  “3D printer” is the obvious contender.  This name is, perhaps grudgingly, being accepted by the industrial side of the 3D printing industry.  The ASTM International F2792 − 12a Standard Terminology for Additive Manufacturing Technologies defines “3D Printer”, not surprisingly, as a “machine for 3D printing”, and the Standard recognizes that 3D printing is a “[t]erm often used synonymously with additive manufacturing”.  The Standard also defines “additive systems” as “machines used for additive manufacturing”.  But as I explain in my book, “additive” is too broad to define the category of layered manufacturing machines because, for example, injection molding machines are additive (versus subtractive) systems.  Perhaps more importantly, “additive manufacturing” and “additive systems” are not sexy names.

But is “3D printer” the best name for this category of machine?  “3D printing” and “3D printer” are adequate to describe today’s technology, which make mostly parts, not products, and do it mostly by layering.  Part count reduction is an argument for how 3D printers are making products today, such as fuel nozzles, which, in GE’s case, reduced 18-20 parts in traditionally manufactured fuel nozzles to one part in their 3D printed counterpart.  Fuel nozzles are also both products (in the sense that one 3D printed fuel nozzle is the sum of 18-20 traditionally manufactured parts), and they are parts in a larger system.  But as “products” they are still only hunks of metal.  Today’s 3D printers cannot make fully assembled complex products like smartphones, computers, televisions, or even blenders, printing out ALL of their components.  But someday they will.

When that day comes, “3D printer” just won’t cut it.  Making complex, fully formed, and potentially highly customized products in a single machine is more robust than printing and therefore “3D printing” seems inadequate to describe all that these machines will become.  “Printing” also connotes layers.  “Printing” may work for describing the process of making a part or even circuitry, but seems inadequate for blenders.  Even today, some machines are moving beyond layered manufacturing, such as Carbon’s CLIP and Disney Research’s 3D copier, which seem to make whole parts without layers, which I call injection molding without a mold.

Another contender is “3D assembler”, MIT’s dream for which is to make products from molecules.  Load molecules in one end and smartphones shoot out the other.  So yes, products would be assembled, from molecules.  But not all machines in this category may make products from molecules, and absent such fundamental materials, “assembler” seems inadequate because the machines will do much more than assemble the products they produce.

Another contender is “replicator”, of Star Trek fame.  Maybe it will catch on.  Or “thing maker”, but Mattel may object to the name of its consumer-grade 3D printer becoming the name of an entire category of all-in-one manufacturing machines.  And I doubt VCs will pump zillions into “thing maker” development.  “Thing maker” just doesn’t sound serious enough to be a product category, like smartphones.  Or maybe “thing builder”.  Same problem.  But maybe “product builder” would work.  After all, “record player” and its progeny DID successfully describe a huge category of machines.  

[Image: Finnegan]

In my speeches, I sometimes suggest that ifactories may someday democratize the factories of the future.  Maybe.  Apple might like that, unless it becomes the name for the entire category of machine.  But even then, Steve Jobs may look down, smiling.

Other terms that come to mind are “smart manufactory”, “manufacturing engine”, and “factory in a box”.  The trouble is that the English language seems to lack words that can be combined to describe a single machine that makes fully formed complex products.

Personally, I am partial to “3D fabricator”.  It builds on the groundwork laid by 3D printers, but also describes a much broader category:  machines that make products.  My second choice is “microfactory”.  Maybe this will be the winner because it carries no layered manufacturing baggage.

If you have other ideas, I’m open to suggestions.  But in reality, the name for the category of machines toward which today’s 3D printers are evolving will simply appear one day, becoming the convenient handle that makes them ubiquitous and drives their evolution, just as “telephone”, “television”, “computer”, and “smartphone” did for other categories of devices.  But in the end, it probably will not be a matter of one person choosing a name, but of the market naming the 3D printer of the future.

Discuss in the What’s in a Name? forum at 3DPB.com.


John is a partner in the Washington, DC headquarters of the Finnegan IP law firm, leads its 3D Printing Working Group, and is the author of 3D Printing Will Rock the World.  Any opinions in this article are solely those of the author and are not legal advice.


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