FDM - 3D Printing has Evolved
3D printers create physical objects from digital files. These objects are made of metal powders, resins, plastics, and even concrete. Each family of 3D printing technologies has pros and cons, and each contributes to the industry in its own way.
From FDM to SLA to SLS, each printing technology has its own unique focus.
3D printers allow their operators to create everything from jet engine parts using SLS, to movie props using SLA, to engineering design tests using FDM. For decades, 3D printing has been used in industrial applications, but only in the past few years has it started to become more accessible and more popular in consumer settings.
FDM technology has been leading this shift, accounting for more than 90% of printers shipped worldwide (Gartner, 2015).
FDM has become the leading technology for five main reasons:
- Physical size - Most FDM printers are small enough to sit on a table or desk, much like the 2D printers we can now find in many homes all over the world. Other technology families, such as powder binding, PolyJet, and SLS require large amounts of space -- sometimes even entire rooms.
- Easier to manufacture - FDM printers are comparatively simple. Less complexity in the manufacturing process means that the (fixed) costs of scaling manufacturing processes are lower, which means that more manufacturers can create more affordable units as they achieve higher volumes. It is harder to automate processes to scale the assembly processes for printers using technologies such as Selective Laser Sintering, PolyJet, or Electron Beam Melting, as these processes are more complicated and require more substantial upfront investments. The rate at which costs decrease for FDM 3D printers should exceed those of other technologies.
- Expiration of Key Patents - The core patent behind FDM technology was first filed in 1989 and expired in 2009. That year, prices for some FDM printers dropped from over $10,000 to less than $1,000. This is a large factor that has contributed to the 3D printing industry’s growth in the FDM segment; this expiration opened the doors for third-party companies to commercialize this technology, which increased competition, decreased prices, and allowed the FDM segment to boom.
- Low cost of consumables - The consumables market in FDM 3D printing, which consists mostly of PLA and ABS plastic filaments, has become much more affordable than the consumables of other 3D printing families.
- Simplicity of workflow - The workflow for using FDM printers is far more simple and safe than other technologies. CEL (a printer manufacturer) compares the process and space requirements of the FDM tech vs. SLA tech in this article. And, while CEL is likely biased (they design, manufacture, and sell the popular CEL Robox 3D printer, which uses FDM tech), their points are valid. SLA can provide higher detail and accuracy, but FDM is safer, cheaper, and simpler.
But a technology’s past is not as important as its future. We posit that FDM will continue to advance at a blistering pace and continue to lead growth in the desktop 3D printing industry based on two reasons: Material Capabilities, and Future Potential.
This simplicity of FDM gives it a unique advantage over most 3D printing technologies. FDM uses real materials, as opposed to photopolymers (a polymer that must be cured by a UV light, used in SLA). The potential for new FDM materials is greater, as the tech is not constrained to materials that must be cured via UV. Even today, you can purchase carbon fiber-infused, electrically conductive, magnetic, woodfill, metalfill, corkfill, flexible, and other exotic FDM materials -- and the market is still young.
When the first desktop FDM machines were introduced, they were sold as kits, made of wood, and perhaps succeeded in producing 1 in every 4 objects they sought to create. Making affordable printers that can handle tolerances in fractions of millimeters is no easy feat, and 3D printer manufacturers have come a long way in the last seven years. However, when you evaluate the printers of today, there is still significant room for improvement.
Consider the future of FDM machines with new materials, material tracking, closed-loop feedback systems, increasingly cheaper sensors, subtractive manufacturing, multi-material printing, advanced toolpaths, automatic bed clearing, and color printing.
Each of these improvements -- and many more -- will allow FDM 3D printers to offer new uses cases and open the door to new verticals and customer segments. Any step toward expanding the range of objects that users can create will expand the value of FDM printing pushing further ahead as the industry standard.
At the end of the day, people want useful things. For 3D printing to become mainstream, it needs to be able to help people create products that add value to their lives. If FDM technology continues to advance at its current pace, its capabilities and applications are almost limitless. Widespread popularity of advanced FDM machines that can combine materials of varying color, conductivity, flexibility, and even solubility will democratize the ability to create end-use products in our homes.
The Second Industrial Revolution
Multi-material printing on desktop machines will become one of the driving forces in what people are calling the Second Industrial Revolution. Material advances and multi-material printing will begin to allow 3D printers to create more end-use, consumer-friendly products.
We’ll see an expansion in the types of objects, ranges of industries, and applications where 3D printing is used.