3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file.
The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. In an additive process an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is created. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.
3D printing is the opposite of subtractive manufacturing which is cutting out / hollowing out a piece of metal or plastic with for instance a milling machine.
3D printing enables you to produce complex (functional) shapes using less material than traditional manufacturing methods.
CNC milling is a specific form of computer numerical controlled (CNC) machining.
Milling itself is a machining process similar to both drilling and cutting, and able to achieve many of the operations performed by cutting and drilling machines. Like drilling, milling uses a rotating cylindrical cutting tool.
However, the cutter in a milling machine is able to move along multiple axes, and can create a variety of shapes, slots and holes.
In addition, the work-piece is often moved across the milling tool in different directions, unlike the single axis motion of a drill.
Laser uses a high-powered beam to cut material based on computer-controlled parameters. As the laser guides its beam along the material, everything in its direct path is vaporized, burned or melted.
One of the benefits of laser cutting technology is the cut product rarely needs any finishing work as this process ensures a high-quality surface finish.
Laser cutting technology comes in two formats: gantry and galvanometer systems. Gantry systems position the laser perpendicular to the material and the machine physically directs the beam over its surface.
Since gantry is the slower of the two systems, manufacturers commonly use it for producing prototypes. In contrast, galvanometer systems use mirrored angles to reposition the laser beam and can cut as fast as 100 feet per minute. Fabricators commonly use galvanometer systems for full-on production work.
Printed circuit board milling (also: isolation milling) is the process of removing areas of copper from a sheet of printed circuit board material to recreate the pads, signal traces and structures according to patterns from a digital circuit board plan known as a layout file
Similar to the more common and well known chemical PCB etch process, the PCB milling process is subtractive: material is removed to create the electrical isolation and ground planes required. However, unlike the chemical etch process, PCB milling is typically a non-chemical process and as such it can be completed in a typical office or lab environment without exposure to hazardous chemicals.
High quality circuit boards can be produced using either process. The case of PCB milling, the quality of a circuit board is chiefly determined by the system's true, or weighted, milling accuracy and control as well as the condition (sharpness, temper) of the milling bits and their respective feed/rotational speeds. By contrast, in the chemical etch process, the quality of a circuit board depends on the accuracy and/or quality of the photomasking and the state of the etching chemicals.
A vinyl cutter (or vinyl plotter) is a computer-controlled plotting device with a blade instead of a pen. A vector based design is created in a software program (usually Adobe Illustrator or Corel Draw) and then sent to the cutter where it cuts along the vector paths laid out in the design.
The cutter is capable of moving the blade on an X and Y axis over the material, cutting it into any shape imaginable. Since the vinyl material comes in long rolls, projects with significant length like banners or billboards can be easily cut as well.
The one major limitation with vinyl cutters is that they can only cut shapes from solid colors of vinyl. A design with multiple colors must have each color cut separately and then layered on top of each other as it is applied to the substrate.
Also, since the shapes are cut out of solid colors, photographs and gradients cannot be reproduced with a standalone cutter.