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What Materials are Available for 3D Printing? A Guide

What Materials are Available for 3D Printing? A Guide | 3D Printing Spot

Updated by

William Stone

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April 14, 2021

The rise of 3D printing has a lot to do with the rapid development of compatible materials. The material library for 3D printing though small has encompassed a wide range of sectors. 

By qualifying a range of materials for use in various sectors, 3D printing technology has managed to make inroads in a large number of mainstream industries like aerospace, medical, defense, construction, etc. We explore all the popular materials available for 3D printing.


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Materials Overview 

Materials form the backbone of 3D printing technology. Without a compatible material for a specific application, 3D printing technology can never be adopted by any industry. Sensing this basic premise early on, engineers, researchers, and scientists have embarked on a journey to develop and qualify widely used traditional materials for 3D printing. This approach has resulted in growing the 3D printing materials library.

Today, we have a wide range of materials available for 3D printing. Right from polymers to metals and from sand to food. All these materials have specific applications and serve a core purpose to efficiently and sustainably build products.

Through this materials guide, we list down the popular materials available for 3D printing.

Polymers 

Polymer materials originated with the birth of 3D printing. The first-ever technology to be invented and commercialized was Stereolithography and it operated on a liquid polymer material (Resins). So this was also the first material to be developed and qualified for 3D printing. 

There are however two types of polymers that are popular in 3D printing and they are also used in different forms for different technologies. We take an in-depth look at the polymer materials available for 3D printing.

Polymer Filaments

Polymer filaments are hands-down the most popular form of 3D printing materials. These filaments are used in Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) technology. 

The polymer filaments are formed from thermoplastic polymers. These are polymers that can be heated and cooled multiple times without much change in their chemical composition or mechanical properties. Since they can be alternatively heated and cooled, they can be reused.

Polymer filaments are formed through an extrusion process where plastic granules are melted and extruded into a filament form. This filament is then wound around a spool to form the material for FDM/FFF technology. 

Popular Polymer Filaments

Polylactic Acid (PLA) 

Polylactic Acid or PLA is the most common material available for 3D printing. It is made from corn starch and is biodegradable. It is also a food-safe material however the food safety also depends on the PLA blend and the 3D printer used as the printer components can contaminate the material. So, care should be taken when printing the material for a food application. 

PLA is an inexpensive material and is widely available all around the globe. It is 

PLA Print Settings
  • Printing temperature: 190oC
  • Heated Bed: Not Required
Applications
  • Prototyping
  • Indoor use
  • Short-term applications
  • Gifting and display items

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS is also a well-known and widely used FDM 3D printing material. It exhibits good heat, impact, and chemical resistance and so it is used as an industrial-grade material. Since ABS is also popularly used in traditional manufacturing, the material has numerous applications in 3D printing as well. 

ABS is easy to machine and can also be smoothened with acetone vaporing. This helps it in gifting applications. However, ABS releases toxic fumes while 3D printing and so it should always be 3D printed in a well-ventilated room. ABS is also plagued with issues like warping and cracking and it is a difficult material to print with. With appropriate settings, the issues can be resolved.

ABS Print Settings
  • Printing temperature: 210oC
  • Bed Temperature: 90oC to 110oC
  • Heated Bed: Required
  • Enclosure: Recommended
Applications
  • Prototyping
  • Industrial use like gears, jigs and fixtures, replacement parts, automotive components
  • Toys, Gifting, and display items

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG)

Polyethylene terephthalate glycol or PETG is also a translucent thermoplastic polymer. This material is formulated from its base material PETG with the addition of glycol to make it more feasible for 3D printing. 

PET in itself is not a good 3D printing material but PETG is a superior material that also eclipses most other 3D printing materials. PETG exhibits superior chemical, impact, and UV resistance. PETG also has a better moisture resistance making it a good material for applications in areas in the vicinity of moisture or water. On the strength front, it is superior to ABS and it can replace ABS in most applications except in conditions where high heat resistance is desirable. 

PETG is also better than PLA in terms of strength, temperature, moisture, and UV resistance. 

PETG Print Settings
  • Printing Temperature: 220oC to 265oC
  • Bed Temperature: 70oC to 80oC
  • Heated Bed: Necessary
  • Enclosure: Recommended
  • Printing Speed: 50-60mm/sec
Applications
  • Functional prototyping
  • Medical industry for prosthetics, braces, tools, and other medical equipment
  • Product packaging and other purpose-specific products

HIPS & PVA

High Impact Polystyrene (HIPS) and Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA) are two materials that are popularly used as support materials as both these materials dissolve in certain liquids, namely, D-Limonene and Water respectively. This enables them to be ideal support materials. 

HIPS is a material that is comparable to ABS and in some cases, it is even better than ABS. HIPS can also be used as a standalone material. 

HIPS Print Settings
  • Printing Temperature: 230oC to 245oC
  • Bed Temperature: 100oC to 115oC
  • Heated Bed: Necessary
  • Enclosure: Recommended
Applications
  • Support material for ABS
  • Casings of electronic assemblies
  • Toys & Wearables
PVA Print Settings
  • Printing Temperature: 180oC to 200oC
  • Bed Temperature: 45oC to 60oC
  • Heated Bed: Optional
  • Enclosure: Not Required
  • Cooling Fan: Recommended
Applications
  • Support material for PLA
  • Support material for complex and critical shapes

Nylon

Nylon is a synthetic polymer formed from polyamides. Nylon is considered a professional material as it is already used by many industries and it also offers many superior benefits. Nylon is pretty well-known for its strength, toughness, and flexibility. Its low coefficient of friction makes it well-suited for functional moving parts. 

Nylon is a tricky material to 3D print due to various reasons. It has a higher melting point, it is hygroscopic which means they absorb moisture from the surroundings. This property can affect the printing quality of the material. The moisture can cause air pockets in the material while printing and so can affect the print and its performance.

Nylon Print Settings
  • Printing Temperature: 240oC to 260oC
  • Bed Temperature: 70oC to 90oC
  • Heated Bed: Required
  • Enclosure: Recommended 
  • Cooling Fan: Not Required
Applications
  • Functional and movable parts
  • Gears, nuts, and bolts
  • Automotive applications like intake manifolds, door handles, etc.

Polymer Resins 

Polymer resins are used in three technologies namely, SLA, DLP, and DLS. As against thermoplastic polymers, resins are thermoset plastics. These are the plastics that form irreversible bonds on the application of strong UV light and as a result on the liquid resin is hardened, it cannot be melted back to its resin form. 

Popular Polymer Resins

Castable Resin 

This is a special-purpose material that evaporates on the application of heat. This is a special property and is leveraged for use in the jewelry and casting industries. It is used for making molds which upon heating can directly evaporate.

Tough Resin 

As the name suggests, the tough resin is formulated for its toughness and durability. Such resins can handle bending, compression, and tension pretty well without breaking. Tough resin is ideal for jigs and fixtures, wear and tear prototypes, housings, and enclosures. 

Flexible Resin 

Flexible resin delivers exactly what the name suggests, flexibility. It is an ideal alternative to rubber material. In 3D printing, flexible resins offer the best solution for applications that desire elastic properties. This material is suitable for applications like vibration dampeners, anatomical models, grips, etc. 

Biocompatible Resin 

Biocompatible resins are formulated for use in applications requiring long-term contact with skin or mucosal membrane. Such materials are FDA approved and are safe for medical use. They can also be sterilized and so are quite popular for medical devices, surgical planning, implant sizing tools, research, etc. 

Polymer Powders

Nylon Powder (PA11 & PA12)

Nylon or PA11 & PA12 are the most popular polymer powder materials used in powder-based 3D printing technology. 

PA11 is a bioplastic derived from a renewable source like vegetable or castor oil and showcases excellent thermal and impact resistance. They also exhibit consistent mechanical properties over a wide temperature range. PA11 is ideal for producing functional prototypes, live hinges, and vehicle parts. 

PA12 is derived from petroleum products. It showcases excellent chemical resistance, stable properties over a wide temperature range, and is extremely versatile. PA12 products are highly strong durable and flexible. Applications are similar to PA11. 

PEBA Powder

PEBA is the world’s first flexible polymer powder material for use in 3D printing. PEBA or Polyether Block Amide showcases a high degree of flexibility, excellent durability, and good chemical resistance. It is perfect for a wide range of applications like footwear, sports equipment, automobile parts, and medical supply tools.

Metals 

Metal 3D printing materials have one of the rapidly growing materials libraries. As metal technologies become more and more reliable and get adopted in mainstream industries, the material availability will go on increasing. We see some of the most popular metal 3D printing materials.

Aluminum 

Aluminum (AlSi10Mg)

Aluminum (AlSi10Mg) is one of the earliest metal additive manufacturing materials qualified and optimized for 3D printing. It is known for its strength and hardness. It also showcases a great combination of thermal and mechanical properties with a low specific weight. 

Applications of Aluminum (AlSi10Mg) metal additive manufacturing material lie in aerospace and automotive production parts. 

Steel 

Stainless Steel (316L)

Stainless Steel is composed of iron, enriched with chrome, nickel, and molybdenum. 316L exhibits strong resistance against corrosion and is known for its high ductility.

Stainless steel 316L material has applications in functional parts, spare parts, aerospace, and medical (surgical tools) production parts.

Stainless Steel (17-4 PH)

Stainless steel 17-4 PH is a multipurpose metal material that has applications in industrial applications. It is precipitation-hardened stainless steel with excellent strength and fatigue properties. 

Stainless steel 17-4 PH has applications in Functional Prototypes, End-of-Arm Tools, Custom Wrenches & Sockets, High-Wear Tooling, etc. 

Maraging Steel 

Maraging Steel (MS1) is a steel powder exhibiting excellent strength and toughness. Maraging steel is simple to machine and post-processed. It is also easily heat-treatable, showcases high malleability allowing it to be formed easily for different applications. 

Maraging Steel has applications in tools for injection molding, die casting of light metal alloys, punching, extrusion, etc.

A2 tool steel

A2 Tool Steel is a highly versatile air-hardening tool steel often regarded as universal cold-work steel. It offers a combination of good wear resistance and toughness. It can be heat-treated to increase hardness and durability. 

D2 tool steel can be used in sheet metal fabrication, forming prototypes, punches, and dies.

D2 tool steel

D2 Tool Steel is widely used in cold-work applications that require high compressive strength, sharp edges, and abrasion resistance. It offers excellent wear resistance and can be heat-treated to increase hardness and durability. 

D2 tool steel can be used in sheet metal fabrication, punches and dies, wear-resistant inserts, shearing tools

H13 tool steel

H13 tool steel is a chromium molybdenum hot work steel. It is characterized by its hardness and abrasion resistance, H13 tool steel has exceptional hardness, resistance to thermal fatigue cracking, and stability in heat treatment - making it an ideal metal for both hot work and cold work tooling applications. 

H13 tool steel has applications in extrusion dies, injection molds, die casting cores, hot forging dies, and inserts. 

4140 Steel

4140 is a low alloy steel that contains chromium, molybdenum, and manganese. It is characterized by its toughness, high fatigue strength, and abrasion and impact resistance, making it great all-purpose steel for industrial applications. It is one of the most versatile steels available for 3D printing.

4140 Steel has applications in the automotive, oil and gas, agriculture, and defense industries, among others.

Cobalt Chrome 

Cobalt Chrome

Cobalt Chrome offers excellent wear and corrosion resistance. It operates reliably at elevated temperatures. It is also biocompatible allowing it to be used in medical applications.  

Cobalt Chrome has wide-ranging applications in aerospace, medical, and specifically dental restorations.

Titanium 

Titanium (Ti6Al4V)

Titanium is the most sought-after metal 3D printing material. Its superior properties make it a desirable material in high-performance industries namely the aerospace, automotive, motorsports, marine, and medical industries. 

Titanium is a lightweight material that offers an excellent strength-to-weight ratio. It exhibits unmatched mechanical properties and corrosion resistance with a low specific weight. It is biocompatible and is easy to fabricate.

Nickel 

Nickel Alloy (Inconel™ 718)

Inconel is a workhorse of metal 3D printing. It is a high-performance material and also called a superalloy due to its excellent properties. It is very popular in 3D printing and exhibits excellent thermal resistance, yield strength, tensile strength, and creep-rupture strength at high temperatures. Used for high-strength applications in extreme environments. Excellent weldability compared to other nickel-based superalloys.

Its most popular applications lie in the Aerospace industry for high-temperature turbine components.

Nickel Alloy (Hastelloy X)

Hastelloy X is also a nickel alloy. Hastelloy X is highly corrosion and oxidation resistant. It is mostly used for high-strength applications in extreme environments like the manufacturing of gas turbine engine parts. It showcases excellent forming and welding characteristics.

Copper 

Copper is a popular conventional manufacturing material. However, it is notoriously difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to fabricate using the same methods. Copper is a soft, ductile metal used primarily for its electrical and thermal conductivity. 

3D printing can eliminate all the mess required to manufacture parts through this material. Until recently it was difficult to 3D print with copper but now with multiple companies developing a compatible copper we have a few variants of copper material available for 3D printing.  

Copper (Cu)

The high purity copper achieves good electrical and thermal conductivity and is suited for a wide range of applications. Copper is mostly 3D printed in powder bed fusion technologies but can now also be used in extrusion-based technologies like those offered by Desktop Metal and Markforged.

Copper’s material characteristics make it ideal for heat exchangers, engine parts, induction coils, electronics as well as any application requiring good conductivity.

Copper CuCP

Copper and Copper alloy (CuCP) is also a pure copper material that offers excellent thermal and electrical conductivity of up to 100% IACS. This high conductivity enables it to be used for 3D printing of electrical motors, inductors, and other applications.

CopperAlloy CuCrZr 

Copper Chromium Zirconium (CuCrZr) offers a moderate to high conductivity in heat-treated conditions together with good mechanical properties. This favorable combination of properties allows it to be used in many critical high-performance applications like manufacturing Induction coils, Rocket engine parts, and Heat exchangers. 

Refractory Metal

Tungsten W1 

Tungsten is known for its hardness, highest melting temperature of all metals at 3,422 °C. This makes it an ideal material for high-performance industries ranging from aerospace and medical to defense, and nuclear.

However, the hardness and also makes it difficult to process through traditional manufacturing techniques. 3D printing plays a big role in leveraging the materials’ advantages. 

With tungsten, very thin yet strong walls can be manufactured enabling lesser use of material while maintaining the strength. 

Precious Metals

Precious metals are used for a wide range of applications in the jewelry and watch industries but also in dental, electronics, and other industries.

Precious metals like Gold, Silver, Platinum, and Palladium can also be efficiently 3D printed in metal additive manufacturing systems.

Concrete 

3D printing in the construction industry is fairly new. It is however a highly lucrative and fast-growing market. Right now, 3D printing technology has only touched the surface of this industry as it faces challenges on multiple fronts. Right from 3D printers, the process, and the materials, companies are racing against time to get the entire process standardized. 

One of the crucial elements of construction3D printing is its material. Traditionally used concrete material cannot be directly used for 3D printing and so companies are developing their materials compatible with their vision, processes, and products. 

Most of the concrete materials for 3D printing consist of cement concrete mixed with sand and additives. Some companies also add fibers to this mixture to increase the strength further.

Considering the potential of 3D printing and the sustainability approach it promotes, companies are also exploring earth-based materials to eliminate the carcinogenic issues related to cement. WASP, a construction 3D printer manufacturer, developed an earth-based compound composed of 25% of soil taken from the site (30% clay, 40% silt, and 30% sand), 40% from straw chopped rice, 25% rice husk, and 10% hydraulic lime. This material was used to build the ‘Gaia House, a 3D-printed house made from the abovementioned earth-based material. The company claims that this material has an almost zero environmental impact.

Bioinks (200)

Bioinks are materials used by bioprinters to build biostructures that have applications inside a living organism. Bioinks contain living cells and biocompatible materials that mimic the extracellular matrix environment, supporting cell adhesion, proliferation, and differentiation after printing. 

Though a variety of materials are used for manufacturing bioinks the most popular ones are collagen, Alginate, poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG), gelatin methacryloyl (GelMA), Pluronic®, and decellularized extracellular matrix (ECM)-based materials.

Cellink Bioink

Cellink, the world’s First Bioink Company, and has developed a non-animal derived polysaccharide hydrogel that is ideal for 3D bioprinting and cell culturing. This patented bioink is composed of alginate and highly hydrated cellulose nanofibrils with morphological similarity to collagen, providing mammalian cells with a milieu that resembles their natural matrix. 

Biogelx Bioink

Biogelx, a spin-out of the University of Strathclyde, developed 3D cell culture scaffolds, in the form of synthetic peptide hydrogels that act as extracellular-matrix environments to support cell growth. The uniqueness of these hydrogel products has been recognized quickly on the market since they are unique in chemical and physical tunability. These features allow the products to replicate the characteristics of specific tissues so that the cells experience and engage with a realistic 3D environment. Building on the success of Biogelx core technology, the company has also designed a novel bioink product family. 

Composites 

Composite materials are typically core polymer materials mixed with a reinforcing material like chopped or continuous fiber. The polymer base helps in ease of printing while the fibers impart higher strength and stiffness compared to non-reinforced polymers. Composites are also lightweight with better strength than polymers. In some cases, the composites can also replace metals. 

The strength properties of composites make them ideal for applications in the aerospace, automotive, tooling, industrial, maritime, and oil and gas industries.

It is possible to 3D print with two types of fibers: Chopped and Continuous. While chopped can be 3D printed through extrusion-based technologies, continuous fibers require a separate and dedicated technology.

Popular Composite Materials

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is the most famous composite material made from a polymer material like PLA or PETG mixed with chopped fibers. Carbon Fiber can also be embedded in Nylon, PEEK, and PEKK. This type of composite can be 3D printed in FDM or other extrusion-based 3D printers (like those offered by Desktop Metal and Markforged). 

Carbon-reinforced PESU material

Polyethersulfone or PESU is a unique thermoplastic material known for its high performance. It is an amorphous material with very high heat resistance, it is food safe and exhibits good electrical insulation and dielectric properties. Due to its high heat resistance, it is a desirable material in the aerospace, rail, and automotive industries. It is even better than the Ultem brand of industrial-grade materials and it is cheaper than them.

A carbon-reinforced PESU offers significantly greater properties than a regular PESU, which is already a super-material.

Diamond Composite

Sandvik, the Swedish multinational engineering company, developed a diamond composite material to target the industries desiring a large range of wear-resistant tools. Traditional manufacturing of diamond-based tools is difficult to process and therefore they cannot be machined into required shapes. The diamond composite aims to solve this critical challenge. 

The diamond composite super-hard material now can be printed in highly complex shapes giving access to better tools for mining, cutting, and other relevant industries. 

Food

Food was mostly an experimental material early on but it has quickly evolved into a crucial material that aims to reduce food wastage. Moreover, food 3D printing also includes areas such as 3D printed meat and fish. This is a whole new area of interest with numerous Startups focusing on developing animal and plant-cell-based meat to solve the global problems of the meat industry. 

Generic Food

The food experimentation started with replacing the filament extruder in FDM 3D printers with a syringe extruder. The syringe housed a food paste generally a chocolate paste or a pancake paste and this was deposited onto a build platform. Though most of these materials cannot create completely three-dimensional objects (except chocolate) they are surely able to 3D print with food. 

Meat 3D printing 

Meat 3D printing closely resembles bioprinting where cells are cultivated to form the alternative meat. The alt-meat is derived either from animal sources (without harming the animals) or plant sources (can be called vegetarian meat).


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 Materials are Available for 3D Printing? A Guide

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