There are several different methods of 3D printing, but the most widely used is a process known as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM). FDM printers use a thermoplastic filament, which is heated to its melting point and then extruded, layer by layer, to create a three dimensional object. Objects created with an FDM printer start out as computer-aided design (CAD) files. Before an object can be printed, its CAD file must be converted to a format that a 3D printer can understand — usually .STL format. Once an object comes off the FDM printer, its support materials are removed either by soaking the object in a water and detergent solution or, in the case of thermoplastic supports, snapping the support material off by hand. Objects may also be sanded, milled, painted or plated to improve their function and appearance.
Thermoplastics can endure heat, chemicals and mechanical stress, which makes them an ideal material for printing prototypes that must withstand testing. And because FDM can print highly detailed objects, it's also commonly used by engineers that need to test parts for fit and form.
FDM is also used to produce end-use parts — particularly small, detailed parts and specialized manufacturing tools. Some thermoplastics can even be used in food and drug packaging, making FDM a popular 3D printing method within the medical industry.