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Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has been a popular method of creating prototypes since the 1980s and is quickly becoming the fastest, most affordable way to create custom consumer goods, as well. But how does this trendy technology work?

There are several different methods of 3D printing, but the most widely used is a process known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM printers use a thermoplastic filament, which is heated to its melting point and then extruded, layer by layer, to create a three dimensional object.

How FDM works

Objects created with an FDM printer start out as computer-aided design (CAD) files. Before an object can be printed, its CAD file must be converted to a format that a 3D printer can understand — usually .STL format. 3d printing service hyderabad indore lucknow india

FDM printers use two kinds of materials, a modeling material, which constitutes the finished object, and a support material, which acts as a scaffolding to support the object as it's being printed.

During printing, these materials take the form of plastic threads, or filaments, which are unwound from a coil and fed through an extrusion nozzle. The nozzle melts the filaments and extrudes them onto a base, sometimes called a build platform or table. Both the nozzle and the base are controlled by a computer that translates the dimensions of an object into X, Y and Z coordinates for the nozzle and base to follow during printing.

In a typical FDM system, the extrusion nozzle moves over the build platform horizontally and vertically, "drawing" a cross section of an object onto the platform. This thin layer of plastic cools and hardens, immediately binding to the layer beneath it. Once a layer is completed, the base is lowered — usually by about one-sixteenth of an inch — to make room for the next layer of plastic.

Printing time depends on the size of the object being manufactured. Small objects — just a few cubic inches — and tall, thin objects print quickly, while larger, more geometrically complex objects take longer to print. Compared to other 3D printing methods, such as stereolithography (SLA) or selective laser sintering (SLS), FDM is a fairly slow process.

Once an object comes off the FDM printer, its support materials are removed either by soaking the object in a water and detergent solution or, in the case of thermoplastic supports, snapping the support material off by hand. Objects may also be sanded, milled, painted or plated to improve their function and appearance.

The most common printing material for FDM is Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a common thermoplastic that's used to make many consumer products, from LEGO bricks to whitewater canoes. Along with ABS, some FDM machines also print in other thermoplastics, like Polycarbonate (PC), Polymide (Nylon), Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic (PVA), Polylactic Acid (PLA), Polylactic acid (SOFT PLA), alloy910, ninjaflex, t-glase or polyetherimide (PEI). Support materials are usually water-soluble wax or brittle thermoplastics, like polyphenylsulfone (PPSF).

Thermoplastics can endure heat, chemicals and mechanical stress, which makes them an ideal material for printing prototypes that must withstand testing. And because FDM can print highly detailed objects, it's also commonly used by engineers that need to test parts for fit and form.

FDM is also used to produce end-use parts — particularly small, detailed parts and specialized manufacturing tools. Some thermoplastics can even be used in food and drug packaging, making FDM a popular 3D printing mumbai pune india method within the medical industry.

Professional FDM printers typically cost between $10,000 and $300,000, which makes them one of the cheapest options for businesses investing in a complete 3D printing system.

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