Generally speaking, Fused Deposition Modeling or “FDM” technology (the kind that layers material from spools of filament) is the most common and widely accessible form of 3D printing being used today. Whether you're an absolute beginner to 3D printing or have been using FDM printers for years, it can get confusing when comparing printer options and how important they are to what you are trying to create. With all the different hardware configurations, material options and applications available, it's worth taking a closer look at some of the fundamental features found in consumer-level (or “hobbyist”) printers and those in industrial-grade 3D printers to better understand how either can achieve specific production goals.
Benefits of 3D Printing At Any Size
The additive manufacturing process has been a game-changer across multiple industries. The 3D printing technologies that use this process have allowed manufacturers to explore new opportunities for creating their products, reducing their time to market and allowing them to select from a wide variety of machines and materials to use for their prototypes and end-use parts.
Heated ChamberIndustrial-grade FDM 3D printers are typically manufactured with an actively heated build chamber. This chamber is kept at a tightly regulated and elevated temperature that allows the plastic to be deposited and cooled evenly without warping or deforming. FDM 3D printers such as the ones in the Stratasys F123 series are built with this heated chamber. This controlled heating and cooling system within the printer allows these machines to produce accurate, durable and repeatable parts that make them a great option for designers and engineers looking to produce industrial-grade prototypes or end-use parts. It also allows the printers to use a wider range of printable materials that require this more precise environmental control.
However, there are some hobbyist 3D printers in the market that have either a heated build platform (which does not allow the heat to distribute evenly throughout the part) or simply an adhesive applied to an unheated plate of glass or aluminum. These 3D printers tend to have a lower success rate when printing large, complex geometries that larger systems can achieve with ease.
When printing complex geometries, oftentimes a temporary support structure will need to be deposited to act as a scaffolding for steep overhangs on the model geometry. Many consumer-level FDM 3D printers use only one extruder, which means the support material is the same as the model material, requiring manual removal. In addition to being time-consuming and tedious, this process can damage or potentially weaken the model during the removal process.
In the case of some advanced consumer-level 3D printers or “performance” printers, like the MakerBot METHOD and MakerBot METHOD X, dual extrusion is used, meaning there is a separate extruder for both the model and support material. When printing precision materials such as MakerBot Tough, PLA and PETG, they can be combined with polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a water-soluble support material. PVA filaments dissolve in water and help achieve a superior surface finish in parts that require complex geometries. Since no manual labor is needed to remove this support, there are no marks or scratches on the print surface and support can be used in shapes where a removal tool may not be able to reach.
In addition to the materials previously mentioned, the MakerBot METHOD X can print ABS thermoplastic and use SR-30 as its support material. SR-30 is an industry-grade soluble release support material that is dissolved through combining heated water and an additional solvent agent that won’t damage the ABS plastic. METHOD X is the only advanced commercial-level printer of its kind that uses SR-30. This makes it ideal for printing unrestricted geometries such as cavities and shelled parts out of industry-preferred materials like ABS that have an outstanding surface finish and print precision.
Model shown with soluble support (left) and after removal (right)
Range of Materials
There are multiple FDM 3D printing materials available in the market. They each have unique properties and serve for manufacturing different parts and prototypes for various uses across multiple industries. One material that is commonly used in hobbyist 3D printers is PLA. This thermoplastic is commonly chosen because it’s cost-efficient, is widely available, can be printed (with or without supports) depending on the design and has a smooth surface that requires little to no post-processing. This makes it a popular choice among desktop 3D printer users. One downside is that it doesn’t stand up to heat or functional stresses as well as other materials.
ABS is the most commonly used polymer for industrial FDM 3D printing, popular for its low cost, functional strength and heat resistance. Similarly, ASA is another commonly used material because of its strong material properties and good UV resistance, which makes it ideal for outdoor products. Both materials require the special printing conditions made possible with a heated chamber, which is why they are not able to be used with most commercial-level 3D printers.
There are other industrial-grade 3D printers, such as the Stratasys Fortus 450mc, which can print a wide range of specialty materials. These larger printers are used for advanced applications that require the use of materials such as Antero 800NA, a highly chemical and heat-resistant material ideal for certain aerospace applications. Other materials such as ULTEM 9085 allow for end-use applications such as metal forming, end-of-arm tooling and thermoforming tools.
When determining what type of machine is right for your application, it's important to consider all the factors involved in the printing process, from software pre-processing to the specific application of the printed model. Using an industrial-grade FDM machine allows for repeatable results, even for parts with complex geometry that are produced for end-use applications. In addition to complex geometry, the use of high-performance materials allows for advanced applications. If you’re looking for a smaller-scale production where functionality and repeatability may not be as critical, evaluating consumer-level 3D printers might be the right path.
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