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3D printing Technology: FDM vs. FFF


What are the differences between FDM 3D printing and FFF, and why does it matter? Since they are, at the moment, the most widely used 3D printing technologies, it would be beneficial to understand these two technologies to get the best results for your project or parts. 

Both technologies are a common prototyping method that melts and deposits polymer filaments through a heated nozzle in a build tray layer by layer until a 3D part is created. Stratasys Inc. trademarked the term Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), but the basic process is known to the general market as Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF).

How do FDM and FFF work?

FDM 3D printers were developed and coined by Stratasys Inc. and consist of a nozzle, a print chamber, and a filament feeding system. The material is guided to an extruder from the feeding system, which is then melted. The nozzle extrudes melted filament onto a build plate in a chamber, creating a 3D-printed model. This process occurs in an isolated chamber that maintains a high temperature. Resulting in a heated build plate in which the material is layered, retaining the material’s mechanical properties and increasing the degree of layer adhesion which helps to reduce warping. The temperature inside a print chamber can be regulated depending on the material used and the device’s operation mode. 

In contrast, FFF 3D printers were designed without a print chamber, and budget-friendly FFF printers don’t have a build plate that can be heated. This was done to be as value-engineered and cost-effective as possible. In these devices, the material experiences temperature fluctuations because of exposure to a cold environment during its extrusion onto the build plate. The temperature changes cause the appearance of unwanted residual stresses, reducing its mechanical properties. 

As a result, FDM technology has been used to produce high-detail prototypes, whereas hobbyists mainly used FFF-based devices. 

This is not the case today. 

When the patent expired for FDM in 2009, many brands established themselves by creating machines with the same filament principles that produce high-quality end parts. Some of these brands include Ultimaker, BCN, X,Y or Z, and 3DGence. Today it is possible to find both FDM and FFF machines that produce quality products and are affordable, and these technologies are now considered to be one and the same with no differences. 

The Advantages and Disadvantages of FDM/FFF

One of the primary advantages of FDM/FFF printers is their ability to handle a variety of different materials, including ABS and PLA filaments, offering versatility in design and application. Moreover, FDM/FFF printers excel in fast printing and are capable of producing objects with sizable volumes, making them suitable for a wide range of applications, from rapid prototyping to end-use part production. However, despite their many advantages, FDM/FFF printers may face challenges in achieving high-quality prints, particularly with intricate designs, as layer lines can be visible, requiring additional post-processing for a smoother finish.

With FDM/FFF machines, completing a part in a few minutes or hours is possible, shortening your lead times and speeding up the prototyping process. It is also possible to print larger objects, and the easily scalable design of FDM/FFF printers means a low cost-to-size ratio. Here are the advantages and disadvantages in summary: 

Advantages of FDM/FFF

  • FDM/FFF is the most cost-effective method of manufacturing thermoplastic components and prototypes.
  • Due to the wide availability of FDM/FFF printers, the lead times are minimal and cheaper than other additive manufacturing processes.
  • Many thermoplastic materials are available for prototyping, and some most common injection molding materials can be replicated using FDM/FFF technology. 
  • The technology is easy to use. 
  • Supported production-grade thermoplastics provide mechanical and environmental stability.
  • FDM/FFF technology makes possible complex shapes and voids that would otherwise be impractical.

Disadvantages of FDM

  • When compared to other 3D printing methods, FDM has the lowest dimensional accuracy and resolution, making it unsuitable for items with delicate features.
  • FDM/FFF printed items are prone to noticeable layer lines; post-processing is essential for a smooth finish. 
  • FDM/FFF printed parts are prone to warping. 
  • Top layer weight can cause deformations on the lower layers of a print. 

FDM/FFF: 3D printing materials and applications

FDM/FFF is the most cost-effective way of producing custom thermoplastic parts and prototypes. This technology can be used with various materials such as PLA, PET, ULTEM, or Metal. Sculpteo offers three options: PLA, Ultrafuse® 316L, and Ultrafuse® 17-4

FDM 3D printing with plastic filament such as PLA is a great way to improve your rapid prototyping process and create reliable, functional prototypes. Our PLA plastic uses a Big Rep 3D printer, allowing large parts of 1x1x1m with a good resolution to be printed.

It is also possible to use FDM technology to print with metal, as metal is becoming a natural alternative to manufacturing objects with higher performances. Metal filament printing is the perfect choice for tooling, jigs and fixtures, molds, and other functional parts, where resistance and durability are necessary. Ultrafuse materials are excellent for medical, automotive, or aerospace industries to create functional prototypes and series production. 

Overall there are four broad categories for applications of this technology:

There is a whole gamut of other processes in 3D printing to note, like Selective Laser Sintering, Stereolithography, Binder Jetting, HP Multi Jet Fusion, etc., each catering to a unique market and applications. All of these 3D printing technologies are available through our online 3D printing service.

In contrast, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Stereolithography (SLA), methods akin to FDM/FFF, utilize different materials and processes to achieve similar outcomes. SLA, for instance, employs a resin-based approach, where a UV laser selectively solidifies liquid resin to build objects layer by layer. This method often yields higher-quality prints with finer details and smoother surfaces compared to FDM/FFF. While SLA printers may come at a higher cost and have limitations in material selection, they offer unparalleled precision and are ideal for applications demanding intricate designs and superior surface quality. Ultimately, the choice between FDM/FFF and SLA depends on factors such as budget, desired print quality, and the specific requirements of the project or application at hand.

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