Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is one of the best-known additive manufacturing processes. It owes its success primarily to the supposedly simple process technology. FDM 3D printers are among the most popular models among desktop 3D printers.

They can now be found in just about every hobby workshop as well as in the maker scene. As an additive manufacturing process, FDM 3D printing is also one of the oldest existing 3D printing technologies, along with stereolithography and selective laser sintering (SLS). Fused deposition modeling can be used to process engineering plastics, as well as composites – plastic composites – and other special materials. The spectrum of uses for FDM-printed components ranges from industrial applications in the automotive, aerospace or space industries to the food and medical sectors.

What is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)?

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is an additive manufacturing process for the cost-effective production of prototypes, mainly from plastics such as ABS, PEI or PC. The basis of FDM 3D printing is the so-called filament. These are plastic fibers that are rolled up on a roll. During Fused Deposition Modeling, this filament is printed through a nozzle, also called an extruder. During this process, the filament is melted inside the extruder, allowing this thin strip of material to be deposited on a build platform. Once the extruder has successfully extruded a layer of filament, the build platform lowers by one layer thickness and a new layer of filament can be applied. This process repeats until the desired object is completed.

Where does FDM technology come from?

The beginnings of FDM 3D printing date back to the late 1980s. At that time, American Scott Crump made his first attempts with a mixture of wax and plastic. He extruded the mixture from a hot glue gun to make a toy for his daughter. The toy didn’t particularly live up to that designation, but Crump recognized the potential behind the method and began working on automating it. He mounted the hot glue gun on an apparatus that could move in all three directional dimensions – X, Y, and Z. In 1989, he filed the first patent for this technology, which would later become known around the world as fused deposition modeling. Shortly after his patent was granted, he founded Stratasys, which remains one of the world’s leading additive manufacturing companies.

What are the advantages of FDM for 3D printing?

The biggest advantages of FDM 3D printing are the simplicity of the process and the low-cost materials. Processing plastics using an extruder is relatively easy to set up compared to laser or UV light-based process technologies. As a result, FDM 3D printers are significantly less expensive than alternative additive manufacturing technologies and are also widely used at home as desktop printers, since neither lasers nor chemicals are required to cure the components. The material portfolio for the FDM process offers a wide selection of different filament plastics such as polylactide (PLA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonates (PC) and polyphenyl sulfone (PPSF).

In the four decades since the FDM process was invented, these materials have evolved, as has the process technology itself. As a result, the inexpensively available filaments are already optimized for 3D printing. Unlike other 3D printing technologies, the FDM process can be interrupted during printing to incorporate other materials, such as metals, into the part.

Which materials can be printed with FDM?

The most common materials for FDM 3D printing are various plastics – from solid, stable plastics such as ABS or PLA to flexible materials such as TPE. In addition to plastics, metals, ceramics and resins can also be printed using FDM. In the construction industry, an FDM-based process is increasingly establishing itself, in which concrete is printed using an extruder. This allows entire houses to be 3D printed in just a few days. In addition, the FDM process can also be used to process wax and 3D print models for metal investment casting. In more experimental studies, foodstuffs through to organic tissue material have also already been printed using FDM.

What are the variants of FDM 3D printing?

Cartesian printers are among the most common variants of FDM 3D printers. In these printers, the X, Y and Z axes are each controlled by their own motor. Usually, in such models, the Y-axis is mapped using a movable build platform. The X-axis corresponds to a carriage to which the extruder head is attached, and the Z-axis is controlled by toothed belts or threaded spindles. These Cartesian models are particularly easy to set up and maintain, but can become imprecise at higher heights.

Another variant is a special form of Cartesian printer. So-called CoreXY printers have the extruder positioned in X and Y via two axes instead of a moving build platform. This allows the printing speed to be increased while reducing vibrations.

A final variant worth mentioning are so-called delta FDM printers. In these, the extruder is controlled by three vertical tie bars that move via a rail or toothed belt system. The extruder hangs freely above the static build platform and builds the components in a virtual cylindrical build space. With this printer variant, very large build spaces can be filled at high speed and with high precision.

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