Although the technology is about 30 years old, 3D Printing, has been well documented and defined during the past couple of years. We are frequently asked by people new to the industry if there is any difference in terminology between 3D printing, additive manufacturing, and rapid prototyping.
Between the terms 3D printing and additive manufacturing, there is no difference. 3D printing and additive manufacturing are synonyms for the same process. Both terms reference the process of building parts by joining material layer by layer from a CAD file. This is as opposed to a traditional manufacturing process, like CNC Machining, where a part is built by subtracting material from a block of material. 3D printing and additive manufacturing can be used regardless if the parts are fabricated in plastic, metal, or rubber.
Based off our general perception, it seems as though people who work in an industrial or manufacturing setting prefer additive manufacturing since it sounds more formal. In comparison, the media and hobbyists prefer the term 3D printing. The term 3D printing has been used more ever since inexpensive desktop printers became more popular.
The term rapid prototyping is different from 3D printing/additive manufacturing. Rapid prototyping is the technique of fabricating a prototype model from a CAD file. In other words, 3D printing/additive manufacturing is the process, and rapid prototyping is the end result. Rapid prototyping is one of many applications under the 3D printing/additive manufacturing umbrella.