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3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. It all starts with making a virtual design of the object you want to create. This virtual design is for instance a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file. This CAD file is created using a 3D modeling application or with a 3D scanner (to copy an existing object). A 3D scanner can make a 3D digital copy of an object.
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.
We are frequently asked by people new to the industry if there is any difference in terminology between 3D printing and rapid prototyping.
Rapid Prototyping is the technical term for this kind of additive manufacturing process and 3D printing is the colloquial term for the same so that many people can grasp this technology easily. A not so accurate yet commonly perceived difference between Rapid Prototyping and 3D printing is that Rapid Prototyping is industrial level and 3D printing is consumer level additive manufacturing technology.
Drawback of 3D printers is that these printers are less accurate. Also the material choices are highly limited at the moment. But going forward, this is bound to change.
Please note that the difference stated above is general perceived difference. In actual terms, both rapid prototyping and 3D printing mean the same. In fact, rapid prototyping is the actual term and 3D printing is the most commonly used term.