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What is the Most Common Material for 3D Printing?

What is the Most Common Material for 3D Printing | 3D Printing Spot

Updated by

William Stone

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March 1, 2021

The choice of materials available for use in 3D printing can be overwhelming since there are many brands and types; it seems like new products are being added all the time. Each material has its pros and cons, depending on your intended use, budget, and preferences. 

The most common materials used for 3D printers are:

  1. Polyamide (Nylon) Filament
  2. Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) Filament
  3. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Filament 
  4. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Filament
  5. Thermoplastic Urethane (TPU) Filament
  6. Poly Vinyl Alcohol (PVA) Filament
  7. Wood Fiber (Cellulose and PLA) Filament 

Below, we will talk about which material is the most common from this list for 3D printing. We will also go into more detail about each type and provide some guidelines to help you better understand which material might be best suited to your 3D printing needs.

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Table of contents:

Which Material is Most Common for 3D Printing?

Of all the materials on our list, ABS and PLA are the two most used for 3D printing. Both are inexpensive and easy to obtain. Of the two, PLA is easier to print with, so it is most often recommended as the first material for people who are new to 3D printing. ABS is a bit more challenging to print with but gives a better print since it is more durable and flexible than PLA.

Polyamide (Nylon) Filament

Polyamide is a type of synthetic polymer nylon. Nylon is already a familiar material to most people, with a long history that includes a variety of uses from industrial machine parts to stockings to hammocks. Using nylon as a 3D printing material is a fairly new innovation, though it brings many desirable qualities. 

Advantages

The major advantage of polyamide filament as a printing material is that it combines high impact and abrasion resistance at a relatively low price. Nylon has a good balance of strength and flexibility that make it suitable for a variety of applications. Because of its ubiquity in other types of manufacturing, it is readily available as a 3D printing material.

Nylon is suitable for printing projects where the finished item might need to endure some wear and tear. Unlike some other materials on this list, it doesn’t give off an unpleasant odor during the printing process.

Disadvantages

Nylon has one major disadvantage, which is that it tends to absorb water from the environment. It needs to be stored in conditions that minimize the amount of moisture that could be absorbed. Because of this property, nylon filament is prone to warping. 

If you do not properly dry your nylon filament before printing, it can lead to print quality issues. If you have nylon filament that has been exposed to humidity, it’s possible to use a food dehydrator for a few hours to dry it before printing.

3D Printer Specifications

Polyamide filament requires a high temperature to print, so the printer must be able to accommodate 250 degrees Celsius. It typically needs both a heated print bed and white glue, since nylon does not stick to a print bed as easily as other materials.  

Poly Lactic Acid (PLA) Filament

PLA filament is the main go-to material for people using extrusion-based 3D printers because it combines ease of use and versatility. Many beginners get started using PLA since it is easy to print with, doesn’t warp, and is the least expensive of the commonly available filaments. 

Advantages

PLA is also an environmentally-friendly option compared to other materials on this list. It is made from vegetable ingredients such as cornstarch or soy, which means it’s biodegradable and is a renewable resource. It is often used for food containers and for medical applications such as dissolving sutures. 

Disadvantages

On the negative side, PLA is not as smooth as some comparable materials, such as ABS, and does not tolerate high temperatures. It is not suitable for printing items that will be used outdoors since it cannot withstand the heat of the sun.

Accordingly, using PLA in any high-temperature application is not recommended. It starts to deform at temperatures above 60 degrees Celsius. PLA prints may not last as long as other 3D printing materials and will degrade over time. It is relatively brittle and can break; it does not resist damage from chemicals or water. 

People using Poly Lactic Acid for 3D printing sometimes experience problems with the material stringing (also known as oozing) due to how easily it flows. The issue involves small strings of plastic left behind in undesired locations when the extruder nozzle is moving from one spot to another; this leads to a rough texture. 

Stringing can usually be fixed by experimenting with retraction, speed, and temperature settings until you get the desired behavior from the PLA.

3D Printer Specifications

Printing with PLA does not require a heated bed since this material is sticky and adheres well. You may need a cooling fan. It exudes a sweet scent during the printing process and no toxic odors. 

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Filament 

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) filament was among the initial group of plastic materials to be used when 3D printing was first introduced, and it continues to be popular for industrial, commercial, and home purposes. It is smooth, strong, non-toxic, and easy to find. ABS is famously used to make Lego blocks. 

Advantages

The benefits of ABS include affordable prices and superior strength. It can withstand a lot of impact and resists wear and tear over multiple years. During the printing process, ABS is less likely to result in stringing than some other materials, making for clean-finished edges. 

Like PLA, ABS can print very fast. On the other hand, ABS is far less brittle than PLA and so less likely to crack with repeated use. It is both water and chemical resistant. The FDA approves some types of ABS as food-safe.

Objects printed from ABS filament also can take higher temperatures without any warping, which means it is suitable for use in high-temperature environments. However, it tends to yellow and become brittle when exposed to the sun’s UV rays, so it may not be the best choice for outdoor use.

Disadvantages

One downside of ABS is that it’s susceptible to contracting as it cools after the printing process; this could make it less suitable for applications that require precise measurements, although you maybe able to adjust for shrinkage with some experimentation. 

ABS’s tendency to shrink can also cause issues with layers that fail to adhere to one another. You can counteract this by checking the temperature—ABS generally needs to be set in the range of 220 to 225 Celsius for layers to bond correctly. You might also consider some kind of insulating structure around your printer that can help increase the ambient temperature and block drafts. 

Be aware that ABS gives off fumes during the printing process, so it needs to be printed only in well-ventilated areas. This material is petroleum-based and is not biodegradable, so this is one of the less ecologically-friendly materials used for 3D printing projects. 

3D Printer Specifications

To successfully print with ABS, you’ll need a printer large enough to reach the high temperatures required to melt the filament. A heated print bed is also recommended for working with this material. 

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) Filament

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is most known as the material from which water bottles and other food containers are manufactured. PET is recyclable, and most varieties are FDA approved as being suitable for use with food. That makes it the ideal material for dishes, utensils, and similar items. 

You can get a clear, glass-like finish with PET, in addition to an array of options that look like colored glass. 

Advantages

This material is softer than many of the other filament types listed here, which makes it more vulnerable to wear and damage. Finished items should not be exposed to high temperatures. Be aware that this includes home dishwashers, so even though PET is a suitable material for dishware, it must be washed by hand. 

PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol) is a variant of PET that prints more quickly and at lower temperatures than traditional PET filament. It’s also more weather-resistant, so it can be used when printing items meant to be used outdoors. PETG will not change color or fade in sunlight, and it is not affected by temperature variations.

3D Printer Specifications

Printer specifications: PET melts at about 230 degrees Celsius. A heated bed is needed to print with PET filament. It needs to be printed slowly to ensure the layers don’t separate. 

Thermoplastic Urethane (TPU) Filament

Thermoplastic urethane filament is one of several types of thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) that are made from a combination of rubber and hard plastic, and the most used thermoplastic elastomer for 3D printing. 

These types of flexible filaments are used for applications where the ability for the finished item to stretch and bend is the most important characteristic

Advantages

TPU has the advantages of being soft and pliable and has excellent impact resistance. It can stretch to mold around other objects, so it’s popular for uses such as smartphone cases and toys. You can find TPU with different degrees of elasticity, depending on the ratio of rubber to plastic in the formula. Additionally, TPU has a long shelf life, but it is fairly expensive compared to other options.  

You should keep TPU dry, following the same process as with nylon filament. If you try to print a hygroscopic filament when it has absorbed moisture, the small pockets of water in the material will leave behind a rough texture in your finished product. 

Disadvantages

The main disadvantage of TPU is that it tends to be challenging to print due to its significant elasticity. You may experience stringing or unwanted blobs of material. A consistent, slow speed helps to mitigate these issues. Start with a speed of 30 mm/s and adjust as needed.  

It can be difficult to find the right settings on the printer to get the results you want with TPU. If the temperature is too high, you will see stringing. If it’s too low, your layers may not adhere correctly. 

3D Printer Specifications

TPU may require some modification to your printer. For example, a special print head that’s made for flexible material scan be added to prevent the print head from getting blocked when printing with TPU. 

Use a heated glass bed with PVA glue, or blue painter’s tape to make sure your first layer adheres well. The recommended temperature is around 210 to 250 degrees Celsius. 

Poly Vinyl Alcohol (PVA) Filament 

Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) is a polymer that is mainly used to support other materials in the 3D printing process, which can allow the operator to create more complex shapes. 

Advantages

PVA will dissolve in water without any special tools or effort needed, making it superior to using standard supports in printing more complex objects. 

PVA is often paired with PLA or ABS printing. After the piece has been printed, the PVA dissolves in water, leaving behind open areas in the object. 

Disadvantages

Negative properties of PVA as a 3D printing material are to be expected with something that’s so sensitive to water. You’ll need to store it away from moisture in a well-sealed container since absorbed moisture can cause cracking or bubbles in the PVA when it’s printing. 

A dehydrator or oven can remove some of the moisture if PVA has been stored improperly. As long as the temperature is not too high, this should dehydrate the PVA without melting it. 

PVA also has a risk of toxic fumes while printing, so be sure to use appropriate precautions for ventilation. Be sure not to print at temperatures above the recommended 200 degrees Celsius to avoid releasing those vapors into the air. 

PVA is an expensive material when compared with other options on our list. However, for some applications, it’s unlikely there will be any other option that fills the same niche as PVA.

3D Printer Specifications

PVA is relatively sticky and works best with(but doesn’t require) a heated glass print bed. A cooling fan is recommended.

Wood Fiber (Cellulose and PLA) Filament 

Wood fiber filament is made from wood particles and typically PLA, plus a binding polymer. After being printed and finished, it closely resembles wood. Some varieties can mimic exotic wood types. 

Be aware of the temperature used, as some types of wood fiber filament react to higher temperatures with darker (burnt) color variations. This can be desirable or not, depending on the results you want. 

The most common use for wood fiber printing would be sculptures or other items that would be too complex to carve from wood traditionally. Although it can be used for decorative bowls and similar items, it’s generally not to be used for food. 

Wood fiber filament is tricky to print, and among the most expensive materials on our list. It requires sanding after the printing is completed to remove any rough edges left behind in the process. 

It may take some experimentation with printer settings to get the results you want. Finishing with a wood stain or varnish is possible, but the plastic content can make wood fiber printed objects behave differently than natural wood when using these finishes. 

3D Printer Specifications

Printing with wood fiber is similar to using PLA alone. It does not require use with a heated print bed, as it is sticky and can adhere to other materials. Use blue painters’ tape for the bed adhesion. There commended temperature is 200 to 250 degrees Celsius; a cooling fan may be helpful.

How Much Material Does a 3D Printer Use?

It is hard to give an exact measurement of how much material a 3D printer uses since several factors determine the amount. The size of the project, the density of the printing material itself, and the infill percentage are all determinants of the amount of material needed. 

Some slicing programs will give an estimate of the volume and length of materials used for a given project based on parameters you enter. Depending on the settings of the program, it might provide estimates either in grams or meters of filament used.

Alternatively, you could use a calculator like this one to estimate how much material is necessary for a project. You’ll need to have the specific measurements, or you can upload an STL file, and the calculator will pull out the dimensions.

If you have already printed an object once, you can use the weight of that finished object to see how many more you can print from your available stock. You would just divide the weight of the available filament by the weight of your finished object, and you can determine the number you can print.  

What Materials Cannot Be Used in a 3D Printer?

As technology continues to progress, the types of materials that can be used in a 3D printer continue to increase in number and variety. At this time, the most common materials are a variety of plastic, metal, or paste. 

That leaves a lot of materials that are not currently suited to 3D printing. However, people are looking into the potential to be able to print virtually anything in the foreseeable future. There is excitement around the potential to print such items as food, human organs, and glass as technology evolves.

In general, materials used for 3D printing need to be able to melt at a high temperature and then harden as they cool. An item like wood catches fire at high temperatures, so natural wood cannot be used in a 3D printer. However, as noted above, some composites can mimic the qualities of wood by using wood particles combined with other printable materials.

Likewise, items like ceramics and glass require much higher temperatures than 3D printers can manage. So, while there has been some success at replicating these materials using this process, the 3D printing itself is just one step in a multi-step process.  

Overall it is safe to say that there’s a possibility to print with a wide variety of materials given the right conditions and modifications to the printing process. However, most 3D printing is done using the materials listed above or similar ones. We should see more materials becoming widely available in the coming years as the technology is perfected to use them more commonly. 

What 3D Printing Material Should I Use?

When determining which 3D printing material is best for a given project, it’s essential to look at several factors. There is no single material that works for everyone and everything. Factors to consider include:

  1. Intended use
  2. Access to 3D printer(s)
  3. Ease of printing
  4. Printer environment
  5. Budget

Your intended use will be the most important factor in which material to choose. You will want to evaluate the material most closely suited to your project. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the item need to be strong enough to withstand high temperatures or significant impact? 
  • How much flexibility is required? 
  • Will it be used inside or outside? 
  • How large is the item? 
  • How long should it last? 
  • Are there any unique properties required, such as being food-safe or having a particular color or appearance? 

Once you understand the answers to these questions, you will have probably narrowed down your choices quite a bit. Next, evaluate whether the materials that have suitable characteristics for your needs are also compatible with the 3D printer you have available, or if some alterations need to be made to make them compatible. 

Most 3D printers have specific diameters they can use, so confirm that the filament you’re looking at will fit in your machine. Some materials need a heated print bed, while others can adhere to the base without heat. 

It is also worthwhile to look at your own experience level and tolerance for experimentation. Some materials are easy to print with and get good results right away, while others can be tricky and might require more nuance to get right. 

Since it can be frustrating (and expensive) to use some of the more delicate materials, be honest with yourself about these issues and perhaps start with something easy while you learn more about the process. 

The conditions in the space that you’ll be printing can also affect your choice of filament. If you know that the ventilation is poor, for example, you’ll want to avoid printing materials that give off toxic fumes. Ambient temperature can also affect how some materials behave, so if your printer is in an unheated room, you should avoid using a filament like ABS that can crack in cold environments.

Finally, look at your budget for the project. On the more expensive end, specialty 3D printing material can cost over $600 per kilogram, while cheaper materials like PLA can be found around$15-$20 per kilogram on average. Depending on the size of your project, the cost can add up more quickly than you might expect. 

Buying 3D Printing Materials

When it comes to the filament, there is a wide range of choices with varying prices. The price of 3D printing material depends on the components, color (white is usually cheapest), tolerance, and quantity that you purchase. 

Not only do you need to consider which filament you use, but also the size of your printed object, and the amount of infill used. A higher infill density makes the finished object stronger and heavier but will raise the price since more material will be needed. 

Note the printing time required for different types of filaments. Some need to be accommodated with slower printing times, which would also increase electricity usage and overall project time. Even if the printing material itself is cheaper, you might sacrifice your savings if the printing time is extended.

The filament itself can vary in price depending on the brand and specific characteristics. In general, a cheaper material will probably not give as good a result as the more expensive one. If you need to use PVA or another support material in your print, that will also increase the overall cost of your print project. 

Our recommendation would be to avoid the suspiciously low-priced filaments that are often sold on auction websites or from third-party sellers on Amazon. Although you may get lucky with a spool that prints decently, you are more likely to get a filament that is made from lower quality raw materials or contains some sort of filler. 

Filler causes problems since it can make your filament behave differently from how you expected, depending on what the filler material is. This can include changes to the required temperature, or even toxic emissions from the unknown filler heating up.

It is relatively simple to avoid issues like this by purchasing known name brands from reputable retailers. If you are shopping for filament with an unfamiliar seller, read through the customer reviews. You will usually see complaints about inconsistent material from one spool to the next (as the seller changes suppliers to get better prices), or about low-quality results. 

Final Thoughts

The most common materials used in 3D printing are plastics that have a low melting temperature, or some composite containing those materials. The different varieties of 3D printing materials have their individual characteristics that determine which type will be suited to a given printing project. 

While it can seem overwhelming when you start shopping for 3D printing materials, you should be able to find the one that’s right for you based on the intended use and equipment you have.

About THE AUTHOR

William Stone

William Stone

William has spent 20 plus years in the custom manufacturing industry as a COO, CEO and Owner of various custom product businesses. His experience has exposed him to all types of manufacturing from die cast, die struck, injection molding, CNC machining, laser etching, engraving and of course 3D printing.

Learn more about William Stone

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What is the Most Common Material for 3D Printing?

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