An example of the different sizes and configurations possible with FFF 3D printers
While it has its origins as a proprietary manufacturing technology from the 1980s, desktop FFF really took off just over 10 years ago when patents expired and projects like the open-source RepRap initiative led to greater innovation and affordability.
Today, FFF technology is typically a lower-cost solution compared to other 3D printing processes, both in terms of initial investment and running costs. It’s also renowned for being easy to understand and use – making it ideal for busy engineers and elementary school kids alike.
But it has proven so reliable, accurate, and capable of producing robust parts over the years that most of the world’s leading manufacturing, design, and education organizations now use it to drive innovation.
FFF 3D printing uses
Let’s look more closely at the applications of FFF 3D printing:
Plastic polymers are the most used materials for FFF technology, of which there are many for countless uses.
Composites that combine a polymer with fibers of carbon, metal, glass, or other materials are also widely used for various structural benefits, although these cannot be printed reliably on all FFF 3D printers. Technically it is also possible to print food and biological pastes using 3D printing technology, although this is typically reserved for experimental or research applications.
Another important category of material for FFF printers is known as “support” material. This is needed when the orientation or shape of a part makes it impossible to print from bottom to top – for example, a part with a large overhang. Support materials are designed to be easy to remove.
Material for FFF 3D printers is typically sold as spools of filament, each containing from 250 g to 1 kg of material.
If you’re thinking of buying a 3D printer, always check the compatible materials.
For some, you may be limited to using two or three materials. Other printers may claim to work with any material, but soon develop technical issues from wearing caused by printing abrasive composite materials. And some FFF 3D printers are limited to using the manufacturer’s proprietary materials only, while others offer an open filament system (like Ultimaker) compatible with third-party products.
Some of the most common FFF 3D printing polymers are PLA (polylactic acid), which is often used as a “beginners” material due to its ease of use, and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), which offers some superior mechanical properties and heat resistance.
But with thousands of filaments on the market, it’s worth diving a little deeper into their properties to get an understanding of how many applications are possible with a high-quality FFF 3D printer.
|PLA (polylactic acid)||Excellent surface quality and detail. Mechanical and heat properties not suitable for some applications|
|ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)||Strong, ductile material with wear resistance and heat tolerance|
|Nylon (polyamide)||Strong yet flexible, with good chemical, impact, and abrasion resistance|
|PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified)||Good toughness and wear resistance, with chemical resistance against many industrial fluids.|
|CPE (copolyester)||Durable and flexible with a glossy finish and good impact and heat resistance|
|PC (polycarbonate)||Strong and tough material with heat resistance up to 110 °C|
|TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane)||Flexible material with rubber-like properties. Provides high impact and wear resistance|
|PP (polypropylene)||Durable, tough, and fatigue resistant. Retains shape after torsion, bending, or flexing|
|PVA (polyvinyl alcohol)||Water-soluble material used to create supports for overhangs and cavities|
The table above covers the main polymers you can print on a professional 3D printer. Want to find the right composite material for your 3D printing applications? Watch our webinar on composites for 3D printing.
Although FFF 3D printers are all built on the same process, their capabilities differ a lot.
One of the biggest differences can be in material compatibility (see the section above), with the hardware being especially important in defining what sort of composites can be printed.
Size is another key differentiator of FFF 3D printers. The printable space (which limits the size of a single print or batch) is called the build volume or build envelope. This can vary considerably – from 10 cm (3.9 inches) of printable space in the X, Y, and Z dimensions, up to around 1 meter (39 inches) in one or more of these dimensions in the largest units. Note that a stiff, stable build platform aids the FFF process – so large format printers generally mean a trade-off in quality.
The different features of a FFF printer are too many to highlight in an introduction, so here are definitions of a few of the most important:
Finally, it’s important to mention software. Unless you have all the 3D prints you will ever need sitting on a USB stick, you will not be able to do much without the right software.
In 3D printing, software plays two important roles. First, a “slicing” program like Ultimaker Cura is essential for preparing a design file (such as an STL) for print. Load the file into this software, choose your desired print settings (such as fast or extra detail), and it will “slice” it into layers then create a file format the printer understands.
This print job can then be transferred to the printer manually (such as on a USB stick) or sent remotely over the network or cloud. This is where software can play the role of sending, queuing, and tracking these print jobs. Cloud software such as the Ultimaker Digital Factory is enabling the next generation of FFF technology, delivering distributed manufacturing across multiple locations.
Watch this video to see how one manufacturer has created a "digital warehouse" by combining FFF 3D printers and software.