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Machining Prototypes Using Fused Deposition Modeling

Prototypes - Machining

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a free-form fabrication technology developed by Stratasys. Because it uses high strength ABS plastic, it is the favored technology for prototyping plastic parts requiring strength. FDM is a layered manufacturing method that extrudes a thin bead of plastic, one layer at a time. A thread of plastic is fed into an extrusion head, where it is heated into a semi-liquid state and extruded through a very small hole onto the previous layer of material. Support material is also laid down in a similar manner.

FDM is the second most widely used rapid prototyping technology, after stereolithography. A plastic filament is unwound from a coil and supplies material to an extrusion nozzle. The nozzle is heated to melt the plastic and has a mechanism which allows the flow of the melted plastic to be turned on and off. The nozzle is mounted to a mechanical stage which can be moved in both horizontal and vertical directions.

As the nozzle is moved over the table in the required geometry, it deposits a thin bead of extruded plastic to form each layer. The plastic hardens immediately after being squirted from the nozzle and bonds to the layer below. The entire system is contained within a chamber which is held at a temperature just below the melting point of the plastic.

Several materials are available for the process including ABS and investment casting wax. ABS offers good strength, and more recently polycarbonate and poly(phenyl)sulfone materials have been introduced which extend the capabilities of the method further in terms of strength and temperature range. Support structures are fabricated for overhanging geometries and are later removed by breaking them away from the object. A water-soluble support material which can simply be washed away is also available.

FDM is fairly fast for small parts on the order of a few cubic inches, or those that have tall, thin form-factors. It can be very slow for parts with wide cross sections, however. The finish of parts produced with the method have been greatly improved over the years, but aren't quite on a par with stereolithography. The closest competitor to the FDM process is probably three-dimensional printing. However, FDM offers greater strength and a wider range of materials.

Advantages of the FDM Process:

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