3D printing utilizing the extrusion of thermoplastic material is easily the most common — and recognizable — 3DP process. The most popular name for the process is Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM), due to its longevity, however this is a trade name, registered by Stratasys, the company that originally developed it. Stratasys’ FDM technology has been around since the early 1990’s and today is an industrial grade 3D printing process. However, the proliferation of entry-level 3D printers that have emerged since 2009 largely utilize a similar process, generally referred to as Freeform Fabrication (FFF), but in a more basic form due to patents still held by Stratasys. The earliest RepRap machines and all subsequent evolutions — open source and commercial — employ extrusion methodology. However, following Stratasys’ patent infringement filing against Afiniathere is a question mark over how the entry-level end of the market will develop now, with all of the machines potentially in Stratasys’ firing line for patent infringements.
The process works by melting plastic filament that is deposited, via a heated extruder, a layer at a time, onto a build platform according to the 3D data supplied to the printer. Each layer hardens as it is deposited and bonds to the previous layer.
Stratasys has developed a range of proprietary industrial grade materials for its FDM process that are suitable for some production applications. At the entry-level end of the market, materials are more limited, but the range is growing. The most common materials for entry-level FFF 3D printers are ABS and PLA.
The FDM/FFF processes require support structures for any applications with overhanging geometries. For FDM, this entails a second, water-soluble material, which allows support structures to be relatively easily washed away, once the print is complete. Alternatively, breakaway support materials are also possible, which can be removed by manually snapping them off the part. Support structures, or lack thereof, have generally been a limitation of the entry level FFF 3D printers. However, as the systems have evolved and improved to incorporate dual extrusion heads, it has become less of an issue.
In terms of models produced, the FDM process from Stratasys is an accurate and reliable process that is relatively office/studio-friendly, although extensive post-processing can be required. At the entry-level, as would be expected, the FFF process produces much less accurate models, but things are constantly improving.
The process can be slow for some part geometries and layer-to-layer adhesion can be a problem, resulting in parts that are not watertight. Again, post-processing using Acetone can resolve these issues.