So again, it seems simple – some kind of plastic compound, in whatever color is most suitable. 3D printing doesn’t just offer a huge variety in what you can create. But also what you can make your new creations out of.
Well, it’s not quite that easy. In fact, there are quite a lot of different options and materials out there for what you want to create. Each with its own peculiarities and requirements. So it’s definitely worth making sure you pick the right materials for your project and printer. Otherwise, you might end up with an unpleasant surprise instead of your latest 3D printable.
We compiled a list of the most common compounds you can use for 3D printing, along with some of their characteristics. If you pull your printables from an online platform, always make sure that the materials you want to use are suitable – and of course, that your printer can work with them as well! If your printer doesn’t reach a high enough temperature for a certain material or is otherwise unsuitable, you’ll be left with wasted money, time, and material!
One of the cheaper materials you can use for 3D printing, Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, was one of the first plastics to be used in printing at all. It’s still popular and creates some of the most stable and solid results you can hope for. That said, it requires conditions like a heated bed and is also very prone to warping, making it a little difficult for beginners. It also has an awful smell when printing. Add to that that parts tend to shrink when they cool, and it can be not easy to create complex projects. It does offer a lot of use for outdoors and high-heat environments, though.
TPE and TPU are the most flexible of filaments. Thermoplastic Elastomers or polyurethane are naturally elastic and flexible. As a result, they can be used for small tires or even rubber bands. That said, they are hard to print and really aren’t suitable for just any project. They do have a great shelf life and can be used to dampen impacts and vibrations—however, their tendency for stringing limits their usefulness somewhat.
Polylactic Acid is the most common 3D printing material. It’s popular because it’s printable at a low temperature, doesn’t need a heated bed, and is easy to use for beginners. In addition, it’s affordable and the perfect choice for any extrusion-based printer. Printed projects aren’t very heat resistant, though, and PLA does get more brittle over time. It’s also not resistant to sunlight, but indoors it has good durability and strength.
HIPS isn’t really intended as a material for final products – it’s mainly a support material, similar to PVA. It is used primarily to support ABS model prints and can be dissolved later in d-Limonene. It has the same printing properties as ABS. When not used as a support material, it offers slightly more dimensional stability than ABS can. That means it’s suitable for parts prone to wearing out since HIPS is also a bit lighter than ABS.
PET or PETG filaments are ideal starting filaments. They’re rigid, water and chemical-resistant, and also easy to print. They don’t require special equipment or environments to be used and result in a smooth-surfaced end product. They’re usually affordable as well – the main drawbacks are the poor bridging attributes PET and PETG have, as well as their tendency to string fine hairs while printing.
Nylon or Polyamide is both tough and flexible. While it requires higher temperatures and a heated bed to use, it has great impact resistance. It doesn’t have the nasty smells many filaments do. However, it does warp a fair bit and absorbs moisture from the air, making it a little difficult to store. In addition, the filament is all but unusable in moist and humid conditions, so make sure you have the necessary environments before using it!
Carbon fiber filaments use an ABS or PLA base material infused with carbon fiber. This results in a lightweight and durable end product. It requires some special conditions, though – including a hardened steel nozzle. It’s prone to clogging and somewhat brittle, but also strong and stable. The fibers inside the base plastic can help prevent warping and especially shrinking as the project cools – however, it can ooze a fair bit when you print as well.
Acrylic Styrene Acrylonitrile is particularly useful for outdoor projects that require high UV and temperature resistance. It’s used as an alternative to ABS. However, its improved resistances also come with improved printing difficulties. It’s prone to warping and can exude dangerous fumes – always use caution when printing with any material with styrene in the filament!
Polycarbonate is a durable and strong material that is very heat and impact resistant. As such, it needs upwards of 300°C to be usable and a bed temperature of over 80 °C. Some brands have other additives to make them usable at lower temperatures – be very thorough when selecting which brand and type you want to use! In addition, PC will absorb moisture from the air to require special air-tight storage solutions, depending on your intended uses.
Polypropylene is a very light, somewhat flexible, and fatigue-resistant material. It’s very durable and quite expensive, but ideal for storage or packaging uses. However, it’s not very suitable for beginners in 3D printing as PP will warp very strongly when cooling – it also doesn’t adhere to the bed or other adhesives too well, which can present some difficulties for inexperienced 3D printing fans.
Metal filaments are created by mixing a base material with an excellent metal powder or dust – this offers a unique shiny metallic finish and results in quite a heavy result. However, it’s worth noting that MF is very expensive, requires special wear-resistant nozzles, and finished products end up brittle. Unlike actual metal that can be relied on for strength and stability, MF printed projects will be quite brittle and poor in bridging. As an alternative, there are PLA filaments out there that contain metallic coloring instead of actual metal – they are cheaper and much lighter while maintaining the metallic appearance.
Wood filaments mix a PLA base with something else – often cork, wood dust or shavings, or something similar. The result of this material is a fairly realistic ‘wooden’ look and feel. However, smaller printing nozzles can struggle with this material as it can clog up the nozzle. Unlike most other materials, though, the wood fill can have a fairly pleasant woodsy smell.
PVA is a water-soluble material. You’ll rarely want to do your main project out of it, but it has many uses as support material for complex prints. Since it can dissolve when wet, combining it with non-soluble materials will allow you to print more complicated things. For example, if you want to print a spring-shaped something, you may use PVA to fill the empty spaces between the coil segments. Once done, you submerge it in water, and just like that, you are left with only your spring.
That was our roundup of the most common types of 3D printing filaments. If you want to learn more about specific filaments, we’ve also got more detailed articles for each of them. Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments below.