Minimizing Hands-On FDM Surface Finishing: 5 Keys to Success

Out of all of the 3D print technologies on the market, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) takes the cake regarding cumbersome surface finishing. Surface finishing FDM parts is notoriously difficult on account of persistent, pesky issues like layer lines and seams. However, by taking the time to be strategic about how you print, you can proactively facilitate your FDM surface finishing process with design considerations. It always pays to think ahead!

Read on for our top five recommendations for the “smoothest” (pun intended) FDM surface finishing process possible.

1. Print Orientation

For optimal end part results, you’ll want to do minimal hands-on surface finishing, and print off a part that is as close to complete as possible. To achieve this, consider the difference that using contour tool paths as opposed to raster tool paths make.

Though it may seem counterintuitive because of how much faster raster tool paths print, the rule of thumb for improved surface finishing is to use contour tool paths on as many exterior surfaces as possible. Raster tool paths almost always take longer to surface finish and leave behind an eminently subpar end result.

In the image shown here the top vacuum part is printed with contour tool paths in a horizontal orientation, while the bottom was printed using raster tool paths in a flat orientation. While the difference in surface finish quality is obvious, you may also be surprised that, when considering total part-in-hand time, the top part has an overall shorter cycle time.

2. Seam Placement
Of course, the main hindrance of FDM is its need to start and stop printing at each layer of a part, thus forming troublesome seams. However, to mitigate the amount of work that must be put into sanding off seam lines, you can think strategically about seam placement while designing your part. The location of your seam can easily be changed within the slicing software. Popular methods to minimize the visibility of seams include placing them along the bottom of the part, as well as spreading them out across the part.

3. Material Selection
Most of the time, print material section is driven by requirements such as strength, chemical/temperature resistance, and even color. While virtually all materials used in FDM printing surface finish well, softer thermoplastics tend to finish faster. For example, PostProcess’s automated surface finishing machines – the RADOR and NITOR, can effectively finish a soft material like ABS much faster than a harder, stronger material like Ultem.

4. Printer Slice Height
Depending on the FDM printer and material, you can choose from various preset slice heights ranging from 0.005″ to 0.013″. In some cases, the thinner the slice height, the better your surface finish will be on the Z-axis of the build. The caveat is that thin slice heights often require longer print time.

5. Part Fill/ Contour Passes
If you’re familiar with FDM technology, you’re aware that parts can either be printed as solid or sparse fill. Sparse fill parts reduce internal density, save on material used, and shorten print time, but lack the strength and resistance that solid parts are equipped with. It’s important to keep the fragility of sparse fill parts in mind when surface finishing, and to decipher if a sparse fill part is worth risking breakage during surface finishing.

To strengthen a sparse fill part, you may want to consider adding additional contour toolpaths to prevent possible issues like breakage, delamination, and the exposure of internal raster tool paths.

To minimize or even fully eliminate hands-on surface finishing, check out this video on our Suspended Rotational Force (SRF) automated technologies for FDM. If you’re printing with FDM and are eager to reduce your time spent on support removal, explore our blog post on DfAM: How to Reduce Support Removal Time for FDM. Learn more about the technologies for automated your FDM post-printing operations and how you can achieve dramatic improvements to your workflow here.

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Leaving IPA in the Past – A Modern Resin Removal Solution for Today’s AM

Additive manufacturing users – when is the last time you considered just how intensive your resin removal process is? To give you an idea of the resources that you may be wasting by utilizing traditional chemical detergent solutions, we’ve leveraged data from a real-life customer to delve into how our full resin removal solution compares to IPA for resin removal.

The Realities of Traditional Detergents
The shortcomings of using solvents like isopropyl alcohol (IPA), dipropylene glycol methyl ether (DPM), or tripropylene glycol methyl ether (TPM) may be glaringly obvious day in and day out. It’s no secret that these detergents can be cumbersome to otherwise smooth-running SLA, DLP, or CLIP workflows thanks to harmful fumes, low flashpoints, and/or the need for frequent chemical changeouts.

Not only do these detergents often pose a risk to workplace safety, but particularly on complex geometries, they don’t excel at fully removing resin from printed parts. PostProcess customers like Splitvision have complained that in intricate crevices like screw towers, small slots, and ribs, “It can be a very tedious job to fully clean the resin off of these features with a traditional solution like isopropyl alcohol (IPA).” When IPA performance falls short, excess manual labor is often required. Spending time manually scrubbing and picking off resin does not only slow down production, but it can skyrocket the unit cost of a part.

But – what’s the alternative to soak tanks with detergents like IPA?
PostProcess’s latest resin removal detergent, PLM-403-SUB, was developed specifically to work with the brand’s patented Submersed Vortex Cavitation (SVC) technology, a transformative post-printing solution. The SVC system leverages software-driven ultrasonic cleaning, agitation, and controlled temperatures in a vortex pumping scheme to remove resin quickly and efficiently. When used in one of our SVC-based solutions (e.g. the PostProcess DEMI 400 Series), the detergent unlocks revolutionary benefits and efficiencies for SLA/DLP/CLIP users.

Read on for actual data we’ve calculated from a PostProcess customer that demonstrates how our solutions directly compare to IPA.

Lower Flammability Risk
The PLM-403-SUB detergent has a high flammability point, which means it does not ignite from a spark at the machine’s working temperature. Its flashpoint is significantly higher than that of IPA, and it lacks the overpowering, unpleasant fumes that IPA is also notorious for.

Disposal Cost Savings
As we’ve spoken to, PLM-403-SUB is generally less hazardous than IPA, making it comparatively more pleasant to work with, and cheaper to dispose of. In fact, we’ve found that additive users can achieve over 75% or more savings in annual detergent disposal costs when replacing IPA with the whole PostProcess solution.

Longevity and Subsequent Cost Savings
In the customer case being analyzed, PLM-403-SUB lasted five times longer than IPA. Thanks to this longer detergent lifespan, they only went through about 200L of the PostProcess detergent in a year, compared to the 1000L of IPA they typically went through in twelve months’ time. These various savings all piled up to a significant 30% reduction in total yearly resin removal detergent costs.

Because the PostProcess solution is automated and extremely effective, the need for manual labor and hands-on technician time is virtually eliminated. The solution’s intuitive settings allow users to simply “press play and walk away”, enabling rapid processing times without having to run multiple chemical baths.

We’re proud to say that our resin removal solutions have brought these sorts of astounding efficiencies to a variety of additive users, including Empire Group and Print Parts. Most recently, our SVC-driven DEMI 400 Series was selected by German distributor ProductionToGo to pair with their Nexa3D photopolymer printers, offering complete workflow automation. These solutions will enable Nexa3D prototypes or series production parts to be finished with the industry’s fastest cycle time using minimal manual labor, and with detergents that are much less hazardous than other solvents. Read more on this recent partnership here.

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Choosing the Right Automated Support Removal Technology for Your Additive Operation

Now that you’ve made an investment in 3D printers and design software for your additive manufacturing operation, your print volumes are undoubtedly scaling at a brisk pace. While the rapid throughput that 3D printing enables can boost your business, the post-printing step often falls short at keeping up with this newfound level of productivity. Unfortunately, bottlenecks in this stage are extremely common, as typical post-printing methods are archaic and overly reliant on manual labor. 

The answer to this common conundrum? Digitalization. Software-driven solutions can bring your post-printing process up to speed with the rest of your workflow and connect the digital thread. So, where should you get started?

Getting Started with Automated Post-Printing for PolyJet and FDM
Our cutting-edge solutions are the first of their kind to effectively replace common support removal methods with automated approaches that leverage patent-pending software and exclusive chemistry technologies. This blog offers helpful insight into the differences between the various PostProcess technologies, as well as which technology is most ideal for removing structural part supports in your unique workflow. We’ll be touching on two of the most popular print technologies, Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and PolyJet.

So, how do you know which of our support removal solutions is best suited for you? Of our four core technologies, two are developed for support removal:

  • Volumetric Velocity Dispersion (VVD)
    The patented approach utilized in our DECI and BASE solutions.
  • Submersed Vortex Cavitation (SVC)
    The patented approach utilized in our DEMI 200, 400, and 800 Series.

Both of these approaches utilize our AUTOMAT3D® software to customize parameters to your unique processing needs, which may then be saved as “recipes” for future use. Each option also leverages detergents specific to whichever primary polymer-based print technology you’re utilizing – material extrusion (i.e., FDM) or material jetting (i.e., PolyJet). In fact, the print technology that you’re using is going to be the most crucial deciding factor in determining if VVD or SVC is the best fit for you.

Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM)
FDM is renowned for its versatile ability to seamlessly print complex geometries. Our VVD technology is developed for the post-printing needs of intricate FDM part geometries and meant to effectively replace submersion tanks. Due to limited ultrasonics capability and temperature control, processing times in these traditional submersion tanks are often lengthy and inefficient. VVD abounds with benefits to improve FDM post-printing workflows.

  • The technology employs spray nozzles that release detergent in a high flow, low-pressure technique. Combined with heating/cooling agitation, these parts remove hard-to-reach support material on FDM parts gently and efficiently.
  • The spray technique of VVD prevents sparse-fill FDM parts from becoming waterlogged, allowing rates of removal to remain optimal.
  • While alternative post-printing detergents are often caustic and require frequent changing, PostProcess’s proprietary detergents used with VVD can process parts 10-12x as quickly and last twice as long as the leading FDM post-print detergents.
  • Companies that have implemented VVD solutions such as the BASE have experienced significant returns-on-investment, such as decreases in operator labor and a drop in the time that must be dedicated to post-printing. For example, The Toro Company averaged an 89% decrease in post-print processing times and over a 90% decrease in operator labor. Read the full case study here.

As PolyJet printing is especially conducive to softer materials and parts with more complex internal channels, our SVC technology is ideal for effectively breaking up and removing support material without disfiguring PolyJet parts. Traditional PolyJet support removal methods like water jetting and submersion tanks are notorious for slow-moving processing and causing damage to parts.

  • SVC is our proven technology for PolyJet post-printing. Leveraging submersion techniques rather than spray methods, the technology employs a combination of heat, pump agitation, and ultrasonics to finish PolyJet parts.
  • While tacky hybrid layers on PolyJet parts can be bothersome to post-print, SVC can swiftly remove this layer in a singular step.
  • With agitation-driven submersion, SVC technology can more easily access the intricate internal channels of PolyJet parts. These sorts of channels may be especially prevalent in PolyJet parts created for medical or dental applications.
  • SVC’s vortex pumping scheme ensures that “parts that float sink, and parts that sink float.” In other words, regardless of density or geometry, SVC will ensure that the part is uniformly exposed to the detergent and cavitation from the ultrasonics, enabling a uniform finish.
  • The software behind VVD’s functions, AUTOMAT3D®, utilizes sensor monitoring for agitation control that can reduce breakage PolyJet rates to as low as 0.1%.
  • Thanks to the calculated design of the SVC machines, parts can be loaded in and finished while still on the build tray for seamless transport between additive phases.
  • As previously mentioned, PostProcess’s proprietary detergents are safer, less caustic, and hold longer lifespans than competing PolyJet detergents.

Protolabs is one of the many companies that realized significant return-on-investment with a PostProcess SVC solution, reducing labor time by 50% and effectively freeing up 20 valuable labor hours per week. Read the full story here.

Still have questions? Our Live Solution Experience tours are offered on a monthly basis, and delve into our solutions for FDM, PolyJet, and beyond. Guided by one of our expert engineers, these tours show parts being processed and our machines being run in real-time, with the opportunity to ask questions.

After You’ve Chosen Your Solution
Once you’ve invested in one of our automated solutions, a PostProcess Application Engineer will guide you through our entire installation, training, and integration (ITI) process. This includes training on the functions and capabilities of the solution and advisement on the best practices regarding the cadence of your maintenance and your revitalized throughput levels. PostProcess has immense experience across virtually every additive manufacturing material, so you can rest assured that our engineers can make recommendations specific to your particular workflow and materials. Additionally, our User Support Site features resources and manuals that are accessible whenever you need them.

Want to learn more? Head over to our comprehensive FAQ page for additional insights, or contact us at

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