The world of 3D printing has witnessed remarkable advancements over the past 15 years, resulting in the emergence of 5 primary polymer printing technologies, and several sub-types that have spun off of these core technologies.
A great example of this is Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), a 3D printing technology invented by Scott and Lisa Crump in 1988 and patented by their company Stratasys in 1992, and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). While both methods involve the extrusion of thermoplastic filament to create three-dimensional objects, they differ significantly in terms of precision, reliability, and material options. This blog will delve into the differences between Stratasys FDM 3D printing and FFF, highlighting why both may sounds similar, but ultimately aren’t quite equal.
3D Printer Cost
Stratasys FDM printers offer unparalleled precision, reliability, and range of validated material options, but the first thing to look at when comparing FDM to FFF are how they stack up from an affordability standpoint. Stratasys printers are generally more expensive than most FFF printers, reflecting their industrial-grade capabilities and advanced features. However, it is crucial to weigh the upfront investment against the potential long-term benefits and the specific needs of the user. For professionals and businesses that require consistent, high-quality prints, reliable performance, and access to a wide range of materials, the investment in a Stratasys FDM printer will nearly always prove to be worthwhile. It’s hard to put a number on “what does it cost me if this 3D Printer is down 50-70% of the time”, which isn’t a concern at all with Stratasys FDM printers, making them a good investment.
Then again, for hobbyists, makers, and individuals with more modest requirements and who are willing to spend significant amounts of time tinkering and “making the printer work”, then some hobbyist level FFF printers can offer a more cost-effective option, even with potential limitations in precision, reliable and consistent material choices, and frequent failed prints.
If you’re a “tinkerer”, then take that as a point in the column for FFF, but for everybody else who just expects the printer to work any time they need it to, add a point to the FDM column.
Precision and Print Quality
One of the primary factors distinguishing Stratasys FDM 3D printing from FFF “Hobbyist” level filament printing lies in the precision and print quality achieved by the respective technologies. Stratasys printers are renowned for their industrial-grade accuracy and repeatability, of which one of the historic hallmarks of this have been their fully heated and insulated chambers, which result in incredible layer to layer adhesion and build consistency. These machines employ advanced hardware and software mechanisms, such as high precision stepper motors and independent (mostly soluble) support materials, that ensure consistent layer deposition, resulting in highly precise prints. The meticulous calibration out of the factory and during preventative maintenance visits by TriMech and Stratasys personnel, and robust engineering of Stratasys printers contribute to their ability to achieve tight tolerances and dimensional accuracy, build after build, making them suitable for a wide range of demanding real world use applications.
On the other hand, nearly all FFF printers, although more affordable and accessible, tend to lack the same level of precision and consistency. The variations in hardware quality, calibration, and software control usually result in print quality discrepancies and reduced accuracy, making them less suitable for projects that require stringent specifications. Furthermore, frequent tinkering tends to be required in order to get these systems to run, eating up valuable time that could be spent designing new models to print.
Unlike the cost category, there is absolutely no scenario where FFF technology can equal or surpass FDM when it comes to accuracy and precision, so pop another point into the FDM column!
Reliability and Support
Reliability plays a pivotal role in 3D printing, particularly for businesses and professionals seeking consistent performance. Stratasys FDM printers are engineered to deliver high reliability, backed by extensive research, development, and quality control processes. These machines undergo rigorous testing and are built with robust components, ensuring longevity and stability. Moreover, Stratasys provides comprehensive technical support both internally and through the backbone of Partner companies like TriMech, ensuring timely assistance in case of issues. The availability of regular firmware updates and the expertise of the Stratasys and TriMech support team contribute to a seamless printing experience and minimal downtime.
Conversely, hobbyist FFF printers, often developed by individual enthusiasts or small-scale manufacturers, lack the same level of printer reliability and backend troubleshooting/repair support. Inconsistencies in hardware quality, limited documentation, and scarce customer service pose extreme challenges for users and hinder the overall printing experience, which lead to FFF printers not being the best option for most business and industrial manufacturing environments.
There seems to be a bit of a trend here; high quality equipment and a backbone of extremely high levels of customer support absolutely land another point into the FDM column!
Material Variety and Compatibility
Another critical aspect that sets Stratasys FDM 3D printing apart from hobbyist FFF is the extensive range of materials and compatibility options available. Stratasys has developed a wide array of proprietary filaments, including ABS, Polycarbonate, various Nylons, and Chopped Carbon Filled materials, each offering distinct characteristics and suitability for various applications. Furthermore, Stratasys printers often support high-performance materials, such as ULTEM and PEKK, which are vital in aerospace, automotive, and medical industries. The proprietary filaments from Stratasys undergo thorough testing and certification processes to ensure consistent quality and performance on Stratasys FDM printers. Moreover, Stratasys’ close collaborations with 3rd party material manufacturers such as Covestro Additive enables them to provide optimized printing parameters for these Validated materials as well, facilitating better print quality and reliability on systems like the Fortus 450mc.
That said, most FFF printers claim to have compatibility with, on paper, every polymer on the planet that can be turned into a 1.75mm filament, due to their open-source nature. While there is a wide selection of third-party filaments out there on the market, most thermoplastics at the Nylon and Polycarbonate level or higher tend to be incredibly difficult to near impossible for FFF systems to actually print with any level of success, primarily due to the lack of heated build chambers and/or extremely high extrusion temperature capabilities.
Additionally, the lack of optimized printing profiles for specific materials can lead to suboptimal results and unpredictable print quality, and it can take you weeks to months in order to dial in the right settings for the material that you’re attempting to run.
This comes back to “are you willing to be a tinkerer”? Though part of this comes down to machine capabilities as well; while systems like the Stratasys Fortus 450mc enable 3rd party material usage through OpenAM software, all other Stratasys FDM printers (and non-OpenAM 450mc materials) have rigorously tested and precisely tuned settings that are known to run great in those systems, whereas FFF materials are always a roll of the dice. Given that, let’s toss one more point in the FDM column.
FDM vs. FFF Key Takeaways
In conclusion, Stratasys FDM 3D printing and what is traditionally considered “hobbyist” or “entry level” FFF 3D printing are similar, but certainly not equal technologies. In nearly every category, Stratasys FDM printing is superior due to its precision, reliability, and material options. The industrial-grade accuracy and repeatability of Stratasys printers ensure consistent high-quality prints, making them suitable for challenging manufacturing, end use, and prototyping applications. Additionally, the robust engineering, comprehensive customer support, and regular software and firmware updates contribute to a reliable and user-friendly printing experience.
Furthermore, the extensive range of preferred and validated materials offered by Stratasys with optimized print settings caters to nearly all applications one could think of utilizing 3D printing for. While FFF printers have their advantages, such as affordability and accessibility, they lack the precision, reliability, and true material compatibility required for more demanding projects for business and manufacturing support.
Ultimately, the choice between the two depends on the specific needs, budget, and level of perfection expected by the user, but by my count nearly every marble falls into the FDM bin unless all you are planning on making are toys and trinkets; if you have manufacturing related requirements, Stratasys FDM is the only choice!