Is it FDM or FFF?

By on June 22nd, 2019 in Ideas

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 Stratasys’ FDM technology [Source: Stratasys]
Stratasys’ FDM technology [Source: Stratasys]

It’s long overdue, but I want to talk about FDM and FFF today.

There are plenty of 3D printing processes today, all of which have their acronym: SLA, SLS, MJF, and many more. Many new ones are originated by vendors who have developed a twist on an old 3D printing process and wish to make their invention stand out among all the others.

The oldest of the 3D printing processes are SLA, invented by Chuck Hull, whose work eventually transformed into today’s 3D Systems, and the invention by Scott Crump of FDM. Wait, or is it FFF?

Crump’s technology, whichever term you use for it, is by far the most popular of all the 3D printing processes of today. It involves precision heating a uniform filament of thermoplastic material in a hot end, and precisely depositing the softened material along a tool path, layer by layer.

Crump’s company, Stratasys, named the process “FDM”, standing for “Fused Deposition Modeling”, which is prominently stapled on any Stratasys gear that uses that process.

Stratasys held a patent on the process and related methods for decades, but around 2009 these patents began to expire, and this opened the door for new startups, such as MakerBot, Ultimaker, Solidoodle and others to create inexpensive versions of the Stratasys machines. Although they were definitely very far from the same capabilities, they did use the same general 3D printing process.

Many startups referred to their process as FDM, as it was literally the same process used by Stratasys, who had invented the term.

FDM Trademark

The problem was that Stratasys also trademarked the term “FDM”.

 Example of the FDM trademark [Source: Stratasys]
Example of the FDM trademark [Source: Stratasys]

This meant, legally, that “FDM machines” could only be produced by Stratasys. Any other machines from other manufacturers would have to refer to themselves as using some other kind of process. If another vendor produces a machine and labeled it as “FDM”, they are open to litigation by Stratasys for copying their trademark.

Several alternatives have been used, but the one that seems the primary name these days is “FFF”, standing for “Fused Filament Fabrication”. Those words adequately describe the process, just as well as “FDM”.

This now seems pretty clear: If it’s a Stratasys device, it’s FDM. Anything else, it’s FFF.

Using FFF 3D Printing Process

However, that is not what happens in real life.

Every week I see an announcement from one vendor or another that persists in using FDM as the name of the process used in their device. Sometimes it’s from a distant Asian startup struggling to explain their product to a Western audience, but at other times it’s a reasonably established firm that should know better. While technically accurate, it is still legally quite incorrect.

Going forward, we’ll try our best to continue to use the “Stratasy = FDM otherwise FFF” rule for our articles.

Maybe you should too?

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!