3D printing has been around for decades, and like all technologies, it has changed a lot! It also can have different meanings depending on who you are speaking to. For example, someone that has been in the industry for the last 15 to 20 years may use terminology like "grown" or "digitally grown" to refer to 3D printing. This is typically referring to Stereolithography (SLA) printers that use a vat of resin to polymerize a part because the parts look like they are growing out of the vat of liquid.
There are many 3D printing technologies available, but the three main polymer technologies include FDM, PolyJet and SL technology. In the last year, Stratasys added two innovative technologies with the Selective Absorption Fusion (SAF) and Programmable PhotoPolymerization (P3). Each of these technologies offers its own advantages and excels in different applications.
For this article, we are going to focus on FDM technology. FDM stands for Fused Deposition Modeling and uses a filament material that is extruded along a predetermined tool path. Support material is also extruded and this acts as a scaffold to allow printing overhangs. This is the original filament style that was invented by Stratasys founder Scott Crump in the 1980s and is largely unchanged. If you were to look at a 3D printer from 15 years ago, it would be similar to the 3D printers that you see today. It is the process and materials that have changed. If we look at the three FDM machines shown below, they have build volumes starting at ten inches cubed up to three feet by two feet by three feet. There are also machines that can build even larger parts on the diagonal. They also offer a wide range of 3D printing materials with the Fortus 900 offering the most with fifteen thermoplastic options.
FDM is an easy-to-use and general fit technology. If you are interested in bringing 3D printing in-house, we typically like to start by asking what are you doing now and what do you hope to do in the future? The answer to this question will help us to understand what the best fit is for your needs.
One area we see FDM having a lot of success is design communication. Prototypes are usually made to show the team how the part looks and feels. It is less function-driven and more of a fit and finish approach. If you have an electronics enclosure, for example, you might have a new component that needs to fit in the enclosure. 3D printing a prototype to test the fit is a great opportunity to determine if it is going to work.
Another example is the airplane wing prototype printed in ULTEM 9085 shown below. A physical prototype that can be held can dramatically speed up the design process saving both time and costs. Why Choose FDM for Production Parts >>
Another great area of opportunity for 3D printing is fixture design. 3D printing allows you to prototype quickly and make parts that don’t have CAD drawings using 3D scanners. Creating a fixture can be more difficult and this is where 3D printing and 3D scanning can have an impact. We can scan the parts and create a fixture designed specifically for additive manufacturing. This is called designing for additive manufacturing (DFAM), and it’s a design process that allows for making parts that work very well and would be cost or time prohibitive to use alternative methods. An example of this would be a company that makes a part that requires customization. This is a good opportunity to create parts that don’t require tooling.
The Success of FDM 3D Printing
FDM 3D printing can be successful for low volume, high complexity applications and prototyping. We can make large parts very quickly, especially compared to traditional manufacturing methods. Additive manufacturing allows us to not only save costs but also save time in labor and production.