Doesn’t FDM and FFF cater to a similar technology? Yes. So that means they are one and the same, right? No. Here’s a short answer to your question: They are similar. But despite being similar, they are different.
Explore the longer version below:
Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a proprietary technology by Stratasys, Ltd. Stratasys patented the process in the year 1989. A typical FDM machine consists of an extrusion-nozzle assembly, a build platform, and a material in the form of a filament. The filament material enters the extruder where it is heated to a temperature of about 320˚C. This extruder melts the material and selectively deposits it onto the build platform through a nozzle attached at the end of it. The entire process is isolated from the ambient environment. The print chamber is maintained at around 90˚C. As a result, the filament flows from a hot extruder through a heated environment onto a build platform which is hot too, since it is situated in the print chamber. This hot-hot-hot transition leads to better control on the mechanical properties of the part being printed. This elevated print chamber temperature prevents part warpages and curling. It also increases layer to layer adhesion strength. The print chamber temperature varies based on the material being loaded and the build mode being selected. Watch the working of FDM technology in the video attached below.
When the FDM patents expired in the year 2009, a Rep-rap movement came into existence where people started manufacturing their own version of FDM-inspired 3D printers. They called this technology Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) since the term FDM was trademarked by Stratasys. The Rep-rap movement was aimed at enabling manufacturing of complex products without the need for extensive industrial infrastructure. Since the industrial setup consisted of heating the entire print chamber, the FFF printers discarded this very aspect to save costs. To put it simply, there is no heated chamber in a FFF 3D Printer. As a result, the material filament traverses from a hot extruder, through a cold ambient environment onto a hot build platform (in some printers the bed isn’t heated). This transition from hot-cold-hot medium results in generation of residual stresses in the part being printed. Thus, despite the basic process architecture for FDM and FFF printers being the same, the part output and quality is way different. FDM is an industrial grade technology whereas FFF is a desktop, hobbyist level 3D Printing technology. FDM caters to part applications requiring high quality, engineering-grade prototypes that can withstand mechanical loads. Whereas FFF usually caters to part applications requiring prototypes for form and visual validation.
Thanks to Rep-rap movement, there’s a widespread reach of 3D Printing technology. A lot of service providers started adopting these desktop FFF 3D Printers as a result of which the printer prices started falling. The cheapest FDM 3D Printer which was available for around INR 3,00,000/- earlier, started being available for as low as INR 30,000/-. A 10x dip in the price. This disrupted the entire 3D Printing industry. And since the very nature of the two processes is similar, over a period of time, the local service providers colloquially WRONGLY started referring to this FDM-inspired FFF technology as merely FDM technology.
Despite 3D Printing being around for four decades and counting, the technology is still in its infancy in India, at least. And given the affordable costs and widespread reach of FFF technology on the back of rep-rap movement, a usual Indian consumer still associates FFF to be representative of entire 3D Printing. Whereas in reality, there is a whole gamut of other processes under the 3D Printing umbrella like laser sintering, stereolithography, binder jetting, metal 3d printing etc., each catering to a unique market and applications.
On the back of extensive research and well documented case-studies being available on the internet, when consumers opt for prototyping with FDM 3D Printing, they have their expectations aligned accordingly. But in reality, they are opting for a desktop FFF version of the original process. So when the part output is not upto the mark, it sets a negative perception in their minds about 3D Printing, in general. Next time they refrain from opting for 3D Printing again because they perceive that 3D Printing parts have a poor quality and surface finish. When in reality, at times inadvertently, they end up settling for a subordinate process and are never really exposed to the gamut of other 3D Printing technologies. Such a misinformation ruins the market for everyone.
There’s no harm in opting for either technology. But don’t fall for one thinking it’s the other. At the end of the day, it’s all about conveying the right information to the consumer and setting the right expectations.
Hope this information comes in handy the next time you opt for 3D Printing with your local vendor/service provider.
For more information on other 3D Printing technologies, you can always log onto www.chizel.io and explore the right manufacturing processes for your application.