3D printing has grown so much over the years, it can be difficult for newcomers to figure out where to start in terms of equipment, software, and materials. There is a wide range of printers available but their capabilities and functions differ.
The same thing goes for materials, each of which has strengths, weaknesses, and unique features that make it ideal for specific purposes. There are also multiple factors that you need to consider when choosing a material such as type, price, texture, etc. if you want to avoid making costly mistakes. For this reason, we decided to create a guide on the most popular 3D printing materials for beginners and even industry users.
ABS, which is acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, is one of the most used 3D printing materials in the market. It is cheap and tough, able to retain color well, and highly resistant to water and chemicals. In fact, it’s what Legos are made of. If you’ve ever stepped on one, then you’d know just how tough this material can be.
Another reason why it’s such a popular choice is that printed models always come out with a smooth finish. Plus, the material can easily be molded into shape when heated to 220 degrees C (430 F).
That being said, there are drawbacks to using ABS. ABS is sold in the form of a filament which limits it to two types of 3D printers – Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). Using this material requires you to get a printer with a heated bed or chamber. Moreover, it releases an unpleasant smell when being printed.
Because ABS can be used to create accurate parts, it is used in many industries including Architecture and Manufacturing.
PEEK which is short for polyetheretherketone, is a high-performing plastic that is highly resistant to fire, high temperature (up to 260 degrees Celsius), chemicals (including corrosive fluids and gases), and stress. It can handle sterilization as well as exposure to x-ray and gamma radiation. In short, this is really tough plastic. It’s also very lightweight.
The main disadvantage of PEEK is that the material is quite expensive. In addition, you’ll need a high-quality 3D printer to use this material.
Because of this material’s specific properties, PEEK 3D printing is used in creating parts for the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries.
Polylactic Acid, otherwise known as PLA, is a polymer plastic made from sugarcane or cornstarch. This material is not only vegetable-based but is also fully biodegradable. It has low warping. It is easy to use and has a low cost. It doesn’t require a heated bed; it can actually be printed on a cold surface. It comes in a variety of colors. And it can print sharper features compared to ABS. Moreover, it gives off a pleasantly sweet smell when printing. In some ways, it is a better alternative to ABS.
Of course, PLA does have certain disadvantages. It has a low heat resistance which means that it can deform if exposed to high heat. It is not suitable for outdoor use. In addition, the filament can become brittle.
Since it is a “green plastic,” PLA is often used in the education industry. It is also a popular choice in printing light prototypes and models.
PETG or Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified is another popular plastic material used in 3D printing. It is an extremely high strength filament that has a high resistance to chemicals, acids, alkalis, and water. It is extra tough. It is easy to use because it does not require high temperatures to print. Moreover, like ABS, it produces a smooth surface finish.
One huge advantage to PETG is that it is food safe which is why it is often used to make food containers and water bottles. Another advantage to using this material is that it is recyclable. Think of PETG as a combination of ABS and PLA in terms of functionality.
However, PETG is prone to scratches and can be weakened by UV light. Moreover, it is not as easy to produce a clean finish during post-processing. In addition, it is sensitive to high humidity and heat.
Nylon has always been a popular choice of material for manufacturing. And it’s no different when it comes to 3D printing. This synthetic thermoplastic linear polyamide is suitable for additive manufacturing because it is quite inexpensive and very, very tough. It has very little warpage, has an excellent strength to flexibility ratio, and can be dyed or colored if necessary. Plus, it is non-toxic.
However, nylon has a shelf-life of 12 months and needs to be kept dry because it is hygroscopic. Also, it can shrink during cooling which means the models might not be as accurate and precise as you need them to be. Moreover, nylon requires a high temperature to melt. It also requires white glue and a heated bed when printing.
PVA or polyvinyl alcohol is another 3D printing material that is environmentally-friendly. But unlike the other materials we’ve already mentioned, PVA is soft and dissolves when exposed to water. For this reason, it has limited use – as a support structure material when printing complex geometries. You can easily remove the support structure just by pouring warm water over the model. PVA is also often used when creating rapid prototypes.
The main drawback to using PVA is its cost which is quite expensive. In addition, it has strict storage requirements – airtight containers only. Moreover, PVA can easily clog the nozzle of your 3D printer if you leave it hot but not extruding. And like ABS, it releases very unpleasant chemicals when printing.
These six 3D printing materials are just the tip of the iceberg. More and more materials are being introduced into the world of additive manufacturing. The sheer number of what’s available can easily overwhelm anyone. But for beginners, it is often recommended that they stick to ABS and PLA. Both are used in FDM 3D printing and do not require a lot of money. Moreover, they’re the ideal choice for general manufacturing needs.