It’s understandable to think that 3D printing is ‘one size fits all’ – but there are in fact several different technologies and techniques in play which help to make up the main market for these systems. The main two you will come across in your quest to find the perfect printer will likely be FDM and SLA – both of which are fairly commonplace in the mass marketplace and both of which hold a number of pros and cons for the everyday consumer. Total3DPrinting regularly analyses and reviews top-end and affordable 3D printing units which make use of either of these main technologies – as well as many others – but today, we’re going to be focusing on what sets the pair apart, and to start considering which may be the best fit for your projects.
What is FDM?
FDM, or Fused Deposition Modelling, is widely seen as the most affordable and most widely available 3D printing tech on the market today. With this printing standard, the main plastic filament is heated to the point where it can become soft and pliant – and therefore ready to layer. With each deposit of plastic, the printer moves down a layer – so that it can build up sheet by sheet based upon the design requests you have made of it. Buying filaments for FDM machines is extremely easy and relatively expensive, and while FDM printers can be bought for as little as a few hundred pounds, they can increase in price with intricacy. They are massively popular for obvious reasons.
What is SLA?
SLA, or Stereolithography, is also commonplace on the main 3D printing market, though instead of using FDM’s layering methods, these printers instead focus on employing an ultraviolet laser to harden a liquid photopolymer into place. It works somewhat in opposite to FDM in this sense. Unlike FDM, too, SLA machines will build objects from the top downwards. For many printing enthusiasts, SLA is seen as a perhaps more intricate and thus more reliable standard – though there are pros and cons to both types of printing as we will soon discover.
Printing Speed and Accuracy
With more precision, there’s more time involved – and thanks to the relatively small area an SLA’s laser has to work with, these machines can often take longer to print objects than your FDM standards. This can be a major sticking point for some people – though some may argue that an SLA printed object is worth the wait over an FDM project. SLA printers generally produce works of higher resolution and can be considered all the more accurate than FDM, which can be subject to object warping throughout processing.
As all good printing enthusiasts will know, 3D objects aren’t just ready to go as soon as they’re printed. With FDM machines, you’ll need to carefully cut into and pull away certain supports or even sand away at rougher edges and walls. With SLA printers, however, things are a different ball game altogether. The resin used by SLA devices must be washed away with alcohol and therefore require you to wear gloves throughout the process. Therefore, SLA can be considered a little more intensive, and perhaps even a little more dangerous – than working with simple structural removal as experienced through FDM.
The Cost Factor
Budgeting comes into play in a big way with regard to many printers’ choices between FDM and SLA. FDM is largely seen as the affordable standard, and with so many models so widely commonplace, it’s not hard to understand why it remains all the more popular with home enthusiasts. SLA printers, however, generally consume more expensive materials – liquid resin – but these units will also be pricier up front in general. You’ll also need to replace your resin tank regularly to keep from smudging – so on the cost test alone, FDM takes the lead.
Which is Best for Me?
While both FDM and SLA carry benefits and drawbacks here and there, it’s well worth considering FDM when you are just starting out in 3D printing, and when you want or need to keep costs low. For hobbyists, certainly, this type of machine is always worthwhile looking into. SLA, however, offers greater precision and often the better results – so it’s well worth balancing out what you need the most. If you need the quality, can you afford an SLA machine, as well as the upkeep? Are you happy to muddle through with a no-frills FDM standard? The choice is always yours!