What are the best materials to use for 3D printing?
We’ll look at many kinds of material and tell you what their positive and negative qualities are for 3D printing. Let’s go!
PLA Pros and Cons
PLA, or polylactic acid, is the kind of material you’ll receive as your test bath with most newly bought 3D printers.
PLA is one of the more inexpensive materials available on the market. The substance is made from sugarcane and corn, making it one of the more environmentally friendly plastics available - and giving it a longer than average shelf life. As a beginner, the ideal test runs are done with PLA because it doesn’t require that much careful timing and doesn’t need the bed to be heated.
PLA offers the stiffness one would like to have both a sturdy print as well as the ability to create overhangs while using a cooling fan. For example, if you want to create a detail like a person or animal's limb, this would work well.
After printing, you’ll find cutting and modifying your PLA-based print easy.
The heat resistance with PLA is not great, so a printer with cooling fans becomes ideal to better control the outcome with extras like body parts and limbs for figurines. The filament itself also tends to be fairly brittle and might break while printing.
What is PLA best for?
If you are making small models, PLA does a good job of capturing small details. These kinds of details include thin pieces that need to be durable to become part of a structure.
ABS Pros and Cons
ABS, or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, is one of the original 3D printer materials. The infamous LEGO blocks that are so precisely built and also rather painful to stop in are built out of ABS.
While using ABS, you’ll find that it offers good impact and wear resistance - especially considering how long LEGO sets last! Finishes with ABS are also often nice and smooth with not much of a hint of the small holes present in plastic. You can also easily sand ABS without causing much of a problem to create very smooth surfaces.
Given its durability, ABS works well outdoors in extreme temperatures. Is your print going to be outside baking in the sun in your garden? Consider ABS. Purchasing ABS comes at a lowest cost compared to other plastics as well.
Your nose won’t like the smell of melting ABS. We suggest strong ventilation and fans while trying to print with it. Use of low quality ABS results in the print shrinking over time, making parts fit together without the same precision that you started with.
ABS needs a heated bed, which isn’t a big problem as most 3D printers come with one. Compared to PLA, ABS is a bit harder to print with because the extreme heat of printing can cause overly attached ABS to wrap a bit.
One small issue with ABS: it readily absorbs water from the air, so you’ll want to be sure it is in a dry, humidity free place.
What is ABS best for?
ABS plastic finds common use for injection molding, which is to say that ABS handles the high temperatures of manufacturing well. We’ll also say that ABS should be used with any object that requires the ability to durably hold weight, like a carabiner, a wall hook, or anything used outside like a small bike rack.
TPE and TPU
TPE and TPU (Thermoplastic Elastomer) are better known for their flexibility, and are a bit different from PLA and ABS. TPE and TPU have a mix of plastic and rubber. Note also that TPU stands for thermoplastic polyurethane.
These are flexible and soft feeling. Given the flexibility of TPU and TPE, they also have a long shelf life and their printed parts tend to last quite a while, even when used frequently. Both kinds of material are resistant to heat and generally quite strong with very high flexibility to weight ratio.
If you need your printed object to take lots of beatings, compression and stretching, these two kinds of plastic are recommended.
Every con for TPE and TPU comes from its difficulty to print. You’ll want slow, methodical printing with small layer heights to make these kinds of rubber and plastic combos effective. The purpose of shorter distances and layer heights is to keep the filament from becoming stringy or forming blobs, which require more post work adjustment and make items weaker.
Print rubber like materials slower than you think you need to. These also pair better with direct drive extruders that don’t require the filament to be stretched out too far to begin melting.
What is TPE and TPU best for?
Your phone case is most likely made of one of these two. The flexibility of TPE And TPU makes them perfect to shield electronics and other items by allowing the material to stretch around the outside so it really just barely fits. These materials also work well in creating grips like a bike handle or even for a baseball bat.
PET and PETG
Polyethylene Terephthalate and it’s “g” version which includes glycol are amongst the most common types of plastic.
PET offers good impact resistance and it cools quickly. PETG, with glycol mixed in, is almost clear. In case clear and cools quickly sounds like it might refer to a common product, you might know that PETG is used in nearly all water bottles.
PET and PETG print relatively easily without the need for a unique, heat sustaining head. You won’t need much ventilation with these either as they are mostly odorless when printing.
This filament does not create bridges well and isn’t a good choice when creating a supporting structure. Prints also tend to get a little stringy, though they are easily removed. Another downside that rarely actually applies to PET comes from an easily scratched surface, which isn’t often a big deal for a water bottle.
What are PET and PETG used for?
Due to the waterproof nature of PET and PETG, it is commonly used for mechanical parts that will get wet. If you want to print something that is used in an aquarium or around moving water, this is likely your best bet. The ability to handle stress also makes PET popular when making snap fit parts.
Nylon is a very well-known and popular plastic that is frequently used in 3D printing.
Flexible and tough, you may know nylon well as a plastic that takes an impact easily. Nylon absorbs rubbing well and isn’t likely to scratch or get nixed even under stress. Printing with nylon isn’t difficult and doesn’t even really need a cooling fan on to adjust temperatures properly.
When you aren’t using nylon filaments, you’ll want to store them in an airtight, waterproof container and keep it out of humid rooms. Water absorption will cause nylon to warp and become unusable for printing. A heating bed might be necessary for some higher temperature tolerance nylons to print successfully, as the sudden drop in ambient temperature may cause warping too.
What is nylon used for?
Flexibility and impact resistance make nylon very popular for cable ties. You could also make your own custom washers, nuts, and bolts with nylon. Clothes and athletic wear could be printed with nylon too. Nylon even has use in sports - for example, some skateboard wheels are nylon.
We are getting into some tougher materials, not that most of the above plastics aren’t able to absorb an impact or last a long time.
Among the toughest 3D printing plastics available, polycarbonate fits well in extreme scenarios and even offers a level of flexibility. The biggest advantage to using polycarbonate over other plastics is an even higher heat tolerance range of over 300 degrees. You might know polycarbonate well for creating glass and shields with the strength of plexiglass - because they have plastics.
Polycarbonate offers much but requires a bit of expertise and patience too. The filament needs a rather high melting temperature which often requires a higher tolerance printing nozzle than brass - as polycarbonate needs to be in the range of 260 to 310 degrees celsius to extrude properly.
On other end of the scale, polycarbonate also needs special storage with no moisture in the air. Airtight and watertight will be required to keep polycarbonate fresh and useful.
Finally, polycarbonate oozes easily. We suggest setting polycarbonate for shorter travel distances or to just moving faster while printing to prevent even a tiny standstill from causing dripping.
What is polycarbonate used for
If your print requires heat resistance, polycarbonate becomes a great choice. If you need extreme toughness with some flexibility, you’ll want to go with polycarbonate. Our one suggestion is to try using polycarbonate a little before committing to a big project.
Polypropylene resists wear very well, even if used quite frequently. Printing with this plastic will require a heating bed, but doesn’t need additional cooling. Overall, polypropylene is a pretty basic method. Printing at higher temperatures makes the print even stronger, though.
Polypropylene filaments tend to be expensive, especially for the limited work they do. The plastic can also experience heavy warping and it doesn’t adhere all that well without some heat.
What is polypropylene used for
Polypropylene works best for projects that don’t require much strength but do demand long term durability. A watch band or hinge is a good example of this. You can close a door over and over again, but if the door isn’t all that heavy, polypropylene will work wonders.
You’ll know carbon fiber best for its lightweight strength. Picking up a carbon fiber-based print might be unexpectedly light too. The material is overall quite strong and can take a pretty hefty impact.
One 3D printing adage goes that materials offering super strength are often the hardest to use. Carbon fiber needs a hardened steel nozzle (not brass) to keep the rather abrasive filament from scratching and damaging your printer. The filament itself is also a bit brittle and breaks easier than average.
What is carbon fiber used for
Items that need lots of durability and not much weight are often made with carbon fiber. RC cars and small helicopters tend to crash and bump, so carbon fiber becomes a perfect ally since they also need lightweight.
Carbon fiber also makes for great props. If you want to create anything from a mask to a 3d printed sword, the overall lightweight means you can carry more stuff and not be weighed down.
Which 3D printing material is best for me?
Our honest suggestion here is to use whichever material best fits your project's needs and your expertise. There are also multiple tolerances of material for each kind suggested, so read the packaging carefully.
We also suggest having some 3D printing materials on hand, especially if you are able to store them properly. Having some around gives you a chance to test print and see how things work, then learn to adjust tolerances.
Consider reading reviews
Since different makers of materials also offer different levels of the same material, we suggest reading their reviews. Also, reach out to a manufacturer of plastic to see how well their particular kind of PLA or nylon might suit your project. Taking the time to do this helps you avoid wasting material and money.