An Essential Guide to 3D Printer Filaments
2022 Nov 24th
It used to be that having a printer at home to produce letters, reports for work, or creative projects was something of a luxury. Now, no home office is complete without a printer that also scans and can email scanned documents.
Uses of 3D Printing
To people who’ve never used a printer for anything other than words (or pictures) on paper, the advent of 3D printing seemed futuristic, like something out of science fiction. But 3D printing has become ubiquitous: everyone from hobbyists to auto designers can use the technology to create tangible three-dimensional objects they can use in a matter of hours.
In recent years, 3D printing isn’t just for prototyping parts or products that will get produced through a different type of manufacturing: it’s now used as the manufacturing method of choice for functional components in several industries, from automotive to aerospace. There are even giant 3D printers that can pump out concrete and 3D print an entire house!
Cosplayers have also discovered 3D printing to give solid form to creatures and costume pieces, turning imagination into reality using 3D printable plastic material. But to do this, it’s essential to understand which 3D printing materials are best for which type of project.
That’s why we’re bringing you an essential guide to 3D printer filaments. Learn about the different types of 3D printer filaments to decide which type is best for your project.
The first thing a do-it-yourselfer or manufacturer using 3D printing must decide is the size of filament to use. Early 3D printers used whatever material they could get their hands on. That meant that the earliest type of 3D filament was either ABS welding wire or other plastic filaments that were 3 mm in diameter.
As printers evolved, they became lighter, and filament became thinner. Although 3 mm filament (in reality, 2.85 mm, but most 3D printers call it 3 mm) is still available, the new standard size is 1.75 mm. This thinner filament travels through the tube (called a Bowden tube) that delivers it to the heater block and nozzle more readily than the older, thicker, stiffer filaments.
However, it’s still important to understand that flexible filaments in the standard 1.75mm size can stretch or jam in unpredictable ways. Learning how to fine-tune the material’s extrusion is as crucial as choosing the suitable material in the first place.
Types of Plastic
Although there are 3D printers that can extrude metal and ceramic filaments, even those filaments use plastic binders to ease the printing process.
Most 3D printers, however, use plastic filaments. The most common types of plastic for 3D printing include polylactic acid (PLA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), and thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). . There are also filaments made with nylon, called polyamide (PA), and polypropylene (PP) which are a bit less common but offer better properties.
Factors To Consider When Choosing Filament
The filament you decide to use depends on the type of object you want to make. There are several factors to consider:
Strength: Consider how much force the object you are printing will have to withstand or how much load it has to hold. The material you choose must be strong enough to endure repeated use.
Flexibility: TPU filaments can be used to print rubbery, flexible parts that bend and twist easily but will revert to their original shape. A stiff material like PLA will create objects that don’t bend and resist forces that would pull, flatten, or otherwise deform their shape. There are plenty of materials between flexible and stiff to choose from.
Temperature: The temperature at which a filament melts is also a consideration. The temperature at the nozzle and the print bed or printing surface affects how well the material will print and the material’s performance.
Chemical Resistance: Some 3D-printed products will get exposed to chemicals. Check to see if the material you’ll use is chemical resistant and will withstand the chemicals it comes into contact with during use.
Texture: Some filaments turn out parts with a naturally smooth or matte surface, while others create parts that may need additional finishing to achieve the desired surface effect.
Warping: Precision is one of the things that makes 3D printing so attractive as a process for making and manufacturing parts. But some types of filaments are more prone to warping, which causes more waste as you discard parts that don’t meet precise specifications.
Details: In general, stiffer materials will be able to print small, detailed parts or intricate features better than rubbery materials.
Printing Speed: Being able to print faster is a significant consideration as sometimes even relatively small parts take longer than you think. Some materials can be printed faster than others, but even the same material from different brands can be slightly different.
Ease of Use: Some filaments are more manageable for beginning printers to use, while others require more experience and expertise to handle.
Food Contact: If you’re making parts that will come into contact with food, you must have materials that meet FDA requirements for food contact.
UV Resistance: Always check whether the materials you’re considering are recommended for outdoor use. Some types of filaments are UV resistant; others will fade, warp, or become weaker when exposed to sunlight.
Moisture Absorption: Some filaments absorb moisture more easily than others, making them bubbly and more prone to stringing during printing.
Characteristics of Common 3D Printer Filaments
By far, the most popular of the commonly available 3D printer filaments is PLA. This versatile filament melts at lower temperatures, comes in many colors, and is a plant-based material, making it more eco-friendly. While you can’t just throw it in your home compost bin, most PLA filaments are industrially compostable, meaning they can break down in a commercial or municipal composting operation.
PLA is less prone to warping and doesn’t always require a heated printing bed. It inherently has good layer adhesion. PLA turns out stiff but brittle products and has low heat resistance, so it’s not so great for items that must bend or stretch or that might get exposed to high temperatures. There are some tough PLA filaments (i.e., our BioDuro PLA) that will bend and stretch before breaking in a more ductile manner. Some PLAs on the market can be annealed for higher heat resistance, and a special few (like our Ignis PLA) have very high heat resistance straight off the printer.
You can sand PLA parts, and the material doesn’t give off fumes other than an occasional pleasant, sugary smell when heated. PLA works for containers, utensils, rigid parts, prototypes, decorative elements, highly-detailed parts, and even costume pieces like badges, buckles, or plastic swords. PLA filament is the go-to material for most DIY 3D printing projects and is less expensive than other types of 3D printer filaments.
ABS plastic melts at higher temperatures, and it’s stiff and tough at the same time, leading to more durable parts than PLA. It can give off unpleasant fumes during printing and is prone to warping, requiring a heated print bed.
ABS plastic can shrink during cooling, which can cause them to deform or come out of compliance with specifications. But ABS endures higher temperatures than PLA and is still widely used in industrial applications. If you’re making something that needs to be durable enough for heavy use, think of ABS. Legos are made of ABS plastic, and it’s suitable for objects that get dropped often.
PETG is strong, durable, and warps less than other filament types. It is easier to print with than ABS as its less prone to warping. It is strong, flexible, and stands up to high temperatures better than PLA. It can also stand up to impacts better than the more brittle PLA. However, PETG absorbs moisture more easily, and its surface scratches more readily.
PA is a promising material that is flexible, strong, and durable. You can use it to make prototypes, tools, and parts. But PA absorbs moisture easily, requires high temperatures in the nozzle and on the print bed, and can be expensive. Their mechanical strength, ductility, chemical resistance, and wear resistance compensate for their shortcomings.
PP is a lightweight and chemical-resistant material that’s widely used in many products, from shampoo bottles to car parts. It’s strong, heat-resistant, and impact resistant. It doesn’t absorb any moisture either, so you don’t have to worry about keeping it dry. The drawback is that it is very prone to warping, making it very difficult to print. There are only a few brands of PP on the market (our SnapPrint PP included) that can print on desktop printers with the aid of adhesives and a small brim.
As you can see, there are many choices of materials for 3D printing. We hope this essential guide to 3D printer filaments has been helpful to you. If you still have questions about which filament to choose, contact us, and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible!