Choose the Right FDM 3D Printer for You!
FDM 3D printing is by far the most common 3D printing technology. It’s an exceedingly popular option among both professional and hobbyist printer operators, and it’s easy to see why. FDM is an incredibly flexible and versatile technology, with a …
FDM 3D printing is by far the most common 3D printing technology. It’s an exceedingly popular option among both professional and hobbyist printer operators, and it’s easy to see why.
FDM is an incredibly flexible and versatile technology, with a vast range of printers and materials available. As a result, FDM is suitable for a wide range of applications, from small DIY prints at home and rapid prototyping, all the way to large-scale industrial manufacture of strong machinery components.
But the sheer number of options can make choosing the right FDM printer for your purposes challenging. After all, what’s the difference between all these similar-looking machines that all claim to produce the finest prints?
In this article, we’ll explain what make FDM 3D printers tick, what tasks they excel in, and how you can find the right printer for you. We also highlight some of the best printers on the market, including:
How FDM 3D Printing Works …
FDM is short for Fused Deposition Modelling. This term is actually a trademarked name for Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF), but it’s so commonly used that many people may not realize that these are the same technology.
Whether called FFF or FDM, 3D printers based on these technologies function the same way. They fuse heated and melted material together to create a solid object.
You can think of FDM 3D printing as icing a cake. The printers extrude materials through a nozzle and lay it down onto the printer’s build plate in layers to achieve the desired geometry.
Depending on the specific printer technology, either the extruder nozzle or the build plate will move horizontally until all the material for that layer is deposited. Then, either the blade lowers or the extruder rises slightly to lay down a new layer. The heat of the material (and the heated print bed, depending on the printer model) will fuse the two layers together.
The most common materials fed into FDM 3D printers are various thermoplastics — such as ABS, PLA, and Nylon — that come in spools of filament. Some 3D printers can handle rougher materials, like carbon fibre, and some industrial FDM machines can even fuse metal filaments.
Pros and Cons of FDM 3D Printers …
- Low Entry Cost: FDM 3D printers are generally more affordable than machines using other technologies. Additionally, FDM filaments are cheaper than many other materials.
- Print Speed: With FDM 3D printers, you can achieve very fast print speeds. This is an advantage particularly in quickly producing design prototypes and cutting product time to market.
- Material Range: FDM printers support a wide range of materials that make them suitable for many applications. Depending on the printer, you may also be able to reinforce materials with fibres or upgrade your machine to use more exotic filaments.
- Scalability: Although you can’t expand a desktop-sized printer outside its chassis, in theory the only limit on an FDM printer’s size is the gantry. FDM is an easily scalable technology, thanks to the wide range of machines in various sizes.
- Detail: Due to their basic operation, even the most accurate FDM printer will produce some visible layering that limits the amount of detail they can recreate. FDM usually loses in detail quality to other technologies, for example FDM vs. SLA.
- Requires Supports: The heated material coming out of an FDM extruder will slough under its own weight, and FDM prints require support structures that must be removed before the part can be used. This somewhat limits the complexity of FDM printed designs.
- Layer Separation: Insufficiently fused layers may separate from each other and compromise the strength of an FDM printed part. Luckily, you can largely mitigate this issue by using the right print settings and part orientation.
FDM 3D Printing Applications …
Reading about the strengths and limitations of FDM 3D printing, you probably already have a basic idea of where it shines. But let’s a closer look at the most suitable applications for FDM printers.
Thanks to its fast print speed and cheap material costs, FDM 3D printers are excellent for rapidly creating rough or functional prototypes. Using 3D printing in these tasks can make the design cycle faster and reduce time market. Additionally, the lower surface quality won’t matter as much when the product isn’t intended for end use.
Jigs and Fixtures
FDM printers are a prime candidate for creating jigs and fixtures. These parts generally require customized shapes and low production volumes, both factors that play into FDM 3D printing’s strengths. If you use a printer that can reinforce parts with carbon fibre or other material, you can also make your parts extremely lightweight and strong.
FDM 3D printers can print with sanitary and/or biocompatible plastics. This makes them great for medical applications that require highly customizable low-volume appliances. For example, FDM printing is an increasingly popular method for producing prosthetics and splints.
Many major car manufacturers, including Ford and Volkswagen, have embraced FDM printers. They find use in all parts of the car manufacturing process, from design and prototyping to printing functional components, like fasteners and interior parts.
FDM printers are soaring — literally. Aerospace companies and agencies, like Airbus and NASA, use FDM 3D printers to manufacture lightweight, customizable components, some of which have even left Earth.
Considerations When Picking an FDM 3D Printer …
As we’ve pointed out several times, the marketplace is flush with different FDM printer models. When you’re trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack for your 3D printing operation, here are a few things to keep in mind.
- Material Compatibility: Consider what materials you want to process and make sure the printer is compatible with them. Some FDM printers have lower nozzle temperatures that can’t melt the most demanding engineering-grade materials.
- Detail Level: While FDM isn’t the most detailed 3D printing technology, some printers can reach respectable levels of detail — at a price. If you’re looking to primarily make rough prototypes, for example, consider whether you want to pay for the extra detail.
- Throughput: You may think that a bigger and faster printer is better, but that’s not always the case. Fast print speeds often come at the cost of detail. You may not necessarily need a gigantic print chamber for all applications or, vice versa, big parts may not fit in a small printer.
- Printer Software: A 3D printer requires at least one computer software application to prepare and transfer the print jobs to the machine. Make sure your operating system can run the software your printer supports.
- Printer Technology: It’s a good idea to check a printer’s feature list and specifications before purchase. They may have some expensive, advanced technologies that you simply may not need — or can’t live without.
Best FDM 3D Printers …
You should now have an idea of how to choose the right FDM printer for your operation. However, for the sake of convenience, here is a short list of three FDM 3D printers, each suitable for a specific situation.
Ultimaker S5 — A Powerful Workhorse
The Ultimaker S5 is professional-grade FDM printer that’s simple to use for beginners but provides serious production capability even for power users. The printer has a dual extruder and a minimum layer height 60 microns, which produces surprisingly accurate results.
With a large print chamber, the S5 can produce large single prints or print multiple smaller parts at once. It also comes with a storage unit that can store up to six spools of filament, making material switching faster and simpler. For manufacturers looking for a jack-of-all-trades FDM printer with high productivity, this is your choice.
Markforged Mark Two — Strong and Sturdy Parts
If you’re looking to produce strong parts for mechanically demanding applications, Markforged Mark Two has your back. This FDM printer uses Composite Filament Fabrication (CFF) technology to reinforce parts with fibre glass, carbon fibre, or Kevlar. As a result, they have dramatically increased impact and abrasion resistance.
Compatible with Nylon or Markforged’s own Onyx material, the Markforged Mark Two can create parts lighter and stronger than aluminium. For high-quality, industrial-strength parts, Markforged Mark Two is the way to go.
Raise3D Pro3 — Quality on a Budget
Great quality, at a fraction of the price. This sounds like a cheap marketing slogan, but it’s an accurate description of Raise3D Pro3.
The Pro3 FDM printer has multiple advanced features, including a dual extruder with retractable heads, a large 300 x 300 x 300mm print chamber, automatic levelling, a HD camera for print monitoring, and a flexible print surface for easy print removal. It also supports multiple different plastic materials, and can even reinforce them with carbon fibre. In short, this is a full-fledged production ready printer that doesn’t break your budget.