Countless 3D printing technologies and materials are available in the marketplace. You may have heard about the concrete printers that are building homes, or the chocolate dispensing printer or maybe even about the bioprinter capable of recreating organs. While many of these options are real, some are science fiction and others are just bizarre. Which begs the question for entrepreneurs investing in their own business, researchers implementing new technologies for their institutes, or engineers tasked with improving the product development lifecycle: Which 3D printing technology is right for me?
The most commonly used 3D printing technologies are stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM). Originally introduced during the 1980’s, these pioneering technologies have adapted with enhanced materials, speed, size and resolution capabilities. It’s important to note that there are multiple manufacturers and suppliers that offer different versions of FDM or SLA technology, and each is unique in its own way.
Similar to the automobile industry comparing a truck to a sedan, there are numerous providers and options available to compare. While this may be complicated, our job is to simplify it and begin by explaining the basic differences between FDM and SLA. After that, it’s possible to determine which technology may make sense for your business and application.
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), alternatively referred to as fused filament fabrication (FFF), is the most common 3D printing technology available on the market. Typically, FDM printers operate with singular or dual extruders that are compatible with thermoplastic filaments. The filament is loaded into the machine via material spool, melted and deposited onto a heated build platform following a predetermined guide path. The materials simultaneously cool and adhere to another to create a 3-dimensional part. FDM printers come in a variety of sizes and material compatibilities, and can range from $5,000 to $500,000. Materials may include plastics such as ABS, ASA, PLA and more advanced printers are beginning to offer carbon filled and nylon materials that are stronger and longer lasting.
FDM is relatively inexpensive compared to alternate 3D printing methods and tends to yield the most consistent results when it comes to repeatability and strength. In addition, post processing with FDM is simple and most of the time, non-hazardous.
Printing with thermoplastic materials through extrusion nozzles leads to tolerance and resolution challenges. Compared to other 3D printing technologies, FDM may leave layer lines or slight build blemishes due to the heating and cooling of materials.