This guide has been updated for 2021 with new information.
Confused about 3D printing?
Here at Additive-X, we have been inundated with questions about the technologies, components, filaments and features of 3D printers from people who struggle to wrap their heads around what is, admittedly, a jargon-rich industry.
So, we thought we’d put together a handy guide for you split into four parts: 1) Technologies, 2) Components, 3) Filaments and 4) Features, to help you understand your guide holes from your extruders and your SLA printers from your SLS printers.
If we’ve missed anything off our list that you would like more information about, please do not hesitate to send us an email and we’ll reply to you as soon as we are able to. So without further ado, let’s begin:
Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)
FFF 3D printers melt plastic and layer this plastic by way of an extruder. Melted plastic is extruded layer by layer to create a 3D object. It is the most common 3D printing technology.
Some examples of FFF 3D printers include the Ultimaker S3, Ultimaker S5, and the large-format Builder Extreme 1000 PRO.
Fused deposition modelling (FDM)
This is the same technology as FFF, however, it’s also a trademarked term owned by Stratasys. So here’s a basic rule of thumb: If it’s a Stratasys device, it’s FDM. Anything else, it’s FFF.
Composite Filament Fabrication (CFF)
CFF is a printing process that refers to the use of composites in combination with traditional FFF. A dual extruder setup is used; one extruder prints nylon or another base material and the other prints a composite like Kevlar or carbon fibre.
Markforged is the leading manufacturer of CFF 3D printers. These printers include the Mark Two, Onyx Pro and Onyx One, as well as the industrial-grade X7, X5 and X3.
SLA 3d printers use a resin (liquid plastic) to print objects in a photopolymer process. A laser is directed across a tray of resin causing a thin layer to solidify. The part is then lifted by the build platform and the tank raised up a layer.
Formlabs is the market leader for desktop SLA 3D printers. Their range includes the Form 3, Form 3L and Form 3B.
Selective Deposition Lamination (SDL)
SDL is a 3D printing technology that uses A4 paper and glue to create 3D models. It is an eco-friendly technology and parts are fully recyclable.
Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)
SLS is a printing process where tiny particles of thermoplastic powder are fused together by heat from a laser. Layer by layer, models are built up to form a 3D object.
The Formlabs Fuse 1 is our favourite SLS 3D printer at the moment. It fuses nylon powder layer by layer and the unused powder supports parts during printing.
SLS can also be applied to metal 3D printing. For example, the Marforged Metal X can 3D print aluminium, steel and other metal powders.
Selective Heat Sintering (SHS)
SHS is a patented technology by Blueprinter. It is similar to SLS, except it uses a thermal print head instead of a laser to fuse plastic particles together.
A filament is a material you print with. It can be thought of as the ink to an inkjet printer. Filaments can include thermoplastics, nylons, composites and even metals.
The build plate or platform is what printed filament sticks to while being printed. Most FFF 3D printers use a glass build plate, while high-end ones use a heated build plate to improve adhesion.
The guide hole is used to guide the filament into the top of the extruder. On most printers, you manually push your filament into the guide hole to a certain point, so that the extruder has a healthy supply of filament to print with.
The extruder extrudes filament – it is the component your filament passes through before being forced out of the print head’s nozzle. Some FFF 3D printers have a dual extruder set up – this can be for a variety of reasons; some printers have a dual-extruder simply to speed up the print process, while others have one extruder dedicated to high-melting-point filaments and the other to low-melting points filaments. In most 3D printer applications, one extruder will be dedicated to printing supports for the model being printed.
ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)
ABS is one of the most common filaments. It offers good impact resistance and it is sturdy with a long lifespan. It has a high melting point and it is ideal for making parts for machines.
PLA (Polylactic acid)
PLA can be printed on a cold surface and it is softer than ABS. It is more environmentally friendly being bio-degradable and it is easier to work with. It will deform if exposed to heat.
Nylon is stronger and more durable than ABS and PLA. It is flexible and extremely strong and relatively cheap to buy. Only specialised printers support it.
Resin is a filament supported by stereolithography 3D printers, such as the Formlabs Form 3 and Form 3B. Resin is a liquid plastic and it is converted into solid plastic by curing with an ultraviolet (UV) laser. It is similar in texture to ABS, but it offers greater detail overall.
Composites are printed by Composite Filament Fabrication (CFF) printers. They include Kevlar, carbon fibre and fibreglass. Printers that print composites reinforce nylon parts with strands of Kevlar, carbon fibre or fibreglass to create industrial-strength parts – perfect for engineering applications.
Thermoplastic powder is a filament supported by SLS and SHS printers. Thin layers of plastic powder are sintered and built up to form a part. This filament offers high levels of detail and is relatively cost-effective, however, the printers that support it are expensive.
The Marforged Metal X can 3D print aluminium, steel and other metals like titanium using a print process called ADAM, which prints parts in a metal powder surrounded by plastic. Parts are then bulk sintered, with the plastic melting away and the powder transforming into solid, dense metal.
Build volume refers to the size of parts and models that can be printed in one sitting. For example, the Formlabs Form 3 has a build volume of 33.5 × 20.0 × 30 cm (13.2 × 7.9 × 11.8 in).
Connectivity refers to how a printer connects to a computer or network, or how you provide your printer with data. Ten years ago, most 3D printers accepted USB or SD card, however, most printers now feature Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in addition to the options above.
Layer height is the thickness of each layer a printer can print. It is one of the main indicators of print quality. The thinner the layers a printer can print the better the detail will be.
Layer resolution is the same as layer height. Printing at a minimum layer resolution will result in a very detailed model. The best commercial 3D printers can print at 0.1mm or less.
This is the speed at which a printer can print. Several factors can influence print speed, including the filament, layer resolution and the complexity of the print.
Bed levelling is all about getting the print bed level for certain filaments so that parts and models are printed reliably. Most high-end 3D printers have auto levelling while others have manual levelling.
Have we missed anything?
So there we have it, a handy guide for the 3D printing industry. We hope you have found it as useful as we intended it to be, and we’ll update our article as and when new technologies emerge to keep it as relevant as possible.
If we’ve missed anything that you feel should be included, be sure to let us know!
Image credit: Thingiverse, more models of this kind can be found here.