Are Additive or Subtractive Manufacturing Methods Best for Producing Complex Parts?

Emerging technologies are having a dramatic effect on the manufacturing industry. One of the most important is additive manufacturing, which is also known as 3D printing.

3D printing allows for the production of parts with complexity that cannot be matched by traditional manufacturing methods. It can be used to produce features such as parts without seams or joints.

Complex geometric or organic shapes are often only possible to produce using additive manufacturing methods, as well as hollow parts.

Advantages for additive manufacturing methods include:

  • A part can be produced in less time using additive manufacturing than using traditional subtractive manufacturing methods
  • The more complex (less solid) a part is, the faster and less expensive it is to produce
  • Anything that can be designed in a CAD programme can be printed with additive manufacturing
  • Parts used for fit checks, presentation models and short-term use can best be made with additive manufacturing

There are some disadvantages to additive manufacturing that can make subtractive manufacturing a better choice. For example, when it comes to precision for common functional features such as flat faces, drilled and tapped holes, counterbores, and mating components, subtractive methods will generally produce results with the highest repeatablility and dimensional accuracy.

Other advantages to subtractive manufacturing methods include:

  • Subtractive manufacturing produces lower, more capable tolerances than additive manufacturing
  • Subtractive methods result in smoother surfaces than additive methods. Additive manufacturing creates micro-pores, which can lead to infection in medical uses and also add fatigue points that can lead to stress fractures with heavy loads
  • Parts intended for long-term or high-stress use are best made with subtractive manufacturing
  • Medical and aerospace industries prefer subtractive for parts required to stay in the body for long periods of time and for flight-critical aerospace functions

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