5 Ways to Choose Your 3D Printer Filament
FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling printers are the most versatile type of 3D printers out there. There is an incredible variety of filaments you can use for printing, from the inexpensive PLA to the super-strong carbon fiber.
But choosing one filament out of this many can be tricky. What should you prioritize? Should you decide based on the cost alone? Or, is material strength a better way to choose? Or, should you perhaps focus on how easy it is to use?
Confused? Don’t be. Here is a complete breakdown of the five ways to select the right 3D printer filament for you.
How To Select The Right 3D Filament
#1: By the Cost
Let’s face it: your biggest consideration before choosing a 3D printer filament is going to be its cost. After all, filament expenses add up over time. If you intend to keep 3D printing for the foreseeable future, you need a filament that does not blow a hole in your pocket.
Now, the cheapest filament is PLA or Polylactic Acid. It is probably the default filament you got with your printer. It costs next to nothing and is available almost everywhere. The problem? It’s not that good.
It degrades in the mildest heat (including harsh sunlight) and cannot withstand impacts or pressure. It doesn’t fare well against chemicals either.
The only saving grace is that it is easy to use. PLA is a great filament for just messing around. Printing experimental designs or prototypes is where it shines. Just don’t expect PLA products to last long.
If you are looking for an inexpensive but reasonably strong filament, ABS would be your best bet.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS is the most common ‘strong’ plastic. It is strong, heat resistant, and very durable. While a bit costlier than PLA, it is still budget-friendly. Compared to filaments like Polycarbonate or PETG, it is actually quite cheap.
It is for this reason that it is preferred by the wider industry too. Any plastic item you buy from the market is usually made with ABS. Toys, automotive components, kitchen appliances – its range of applications extends everywhere.
#2: By its Strength
Not all filaments are equally strong. Some, like carbon fiber, are strong enough to bear heavy loads without breaking. Others, like PLA, start losing their shape in sunlight.
Choosing a filament by its strength is important for many situations. When you are printing items for outdoor usage, for example. Or, creating protective gear.
As we discussed earlier, ABS is the cheapest high-strength filament. Its most distinctive feature is its heat resistance.
Once ABS sets, it takes extremely high temperatures to make it malleable again. Simple heat of the outdoors or cramped spaces is shrugged off. Prolonged exposure to sunlight has no effect either.
Additionally, ABS is impact resistant too. It is not easily dented by physical impacts or high-stress loads. All these factors make ABS an excellent choice for most heavy-duty prints.
Sometimes, you want nothing but the very best. If you were wondering, ‘What is the strongest 3D printer filament?’, then wonder no more.
Polycarbonate is the best filament, no questions asked. Be it tensile strength, impact resistance, or plain durability, polycarbonate has every other material beat.
It is a great all-around material, exhibiting many qualities in a single filament. Polycarbonate products are strong, smooth, heat as well as chemical resistant. If you can spare the expense, polycarbonate is definitely the strongest filament to use.
Carbon fiber blends are pretty strong too, though the quality varies. Some filaments contain only trace quantities of carbon fiber, which makes them no different from the base plastic. But if you can get a good blend, its strength rivals that of polycarbonate with more flexibility.
Once again, not all FDM printers are good for working with this filament. Like polycarbonate, a printer with a closed printing environment is best. The working temperatures can be pretty high, so a high-end printer is recommended.
#3: By Aesthetics
For most people, 3D printing is used to create decorative items. They can be miniatures to be used with your tabletop gaming sessions or just fancy planters for sprucing up your living room.
Even if all you want is to print useful objects meant for utility rather than looks, you probably expect a minimum level of ‘finish’ from it. No one likes 3D prints that look like half-melted pieces of plastic glued together.
But the final look of a printed object does not depend on the material, right? Not exactly.
Sure, sanding and painting are needed for a professional finish, but there is only so much you can process an inferior material. You need a filament that is naturally smooth and firm to be able to get that ‘end product’ look.
The best choice for this is PETG or Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol. It is a dense, strong material, well known for being a food-grade plastic. Its biggest advantage however is its aesthetic appeal.
PETG naturally has a very smooth finish. Curved surfaces and flat planes are devoid of the irregular bumps found in say, PLA. It also tends to be heavier than other materials, making the prints more solid.
Polycarbonate isn’t a bad choice in this respect either. A tad more expensive to use, but also much stronger to make up for it. It is great for printing small, lightweight objects that need to be smooth but also strong enough to bear heavy loads.
Polycarbonate also tends to come out smoother. This is because the filament can only be printed in a closed environment. The absence of cool outside air slows down the setting of the layers, minimizing defects.
Its high durability also means that dents and cracks are rare. Whether you print a fancy flower vase or a figurine, a few bumps are not going to ruin it.
Then there are the hybrid materials. Some filaments mix an exotic material like wood or carbon fiber with a base thermoplastic. This allows you to use materials that would normally be impossible to insert into an FDM printer.
Wood hybrids are often used to get that ‘rustic’ look, while metal hybrids for a chrome finish. A hint of plastic is always there, however. Don’t expect the printed product to actually feel like wood or metal. That said, it does acquire the texture of the blended material – at least from a distance.
#4: By Ease-of-use
When you are just starting out, the difficulty curve of using a filament is a more important consideration than any other properties it might have. But aren’t all filaments used the same way?
Yes and no.
The basic process is definitely the same no matter which filament you use. The filament is loaded into the extruder, which pushes it through a super-heated nozzle. As the material melts, it is applied onto the print bed, creating each individual layer.
The problem is, different materials have different melting points. Some thermoplastics are very heat resistant and need extremely high temperatures to start melting. Using such filaments can be hard.
ABS, for example, is very difficult to work with. It does not melt easily, requiring temperatures in excess of 200℃. For many budget printers, this temperature is beyond their permissible range.
Even when you have a printer that can handle it, it is hardly a cakewalk. Too hot and the layers do not set properly, too cold and the print has defects. Not recommended for a beginner.
Similarly, Polycarbonate and carbon fiber need specialized printers to use. Not only are the temperatures required high, but a closed environment is also needed. Carbon fiber compatible printers have an enclosed print bed and extruders capable of enduring the high temperatures without damage.
The easiest material to use is PLA. It melts quickly, allowing you to get started with prints without having to preheat the printer too much. It does not need a covered space either, setting easily in the open air too.
For a beginner into 3D printing, it is highly recommended to stick to PLA until you get the hang of it. Even for experts, PLA can be a good choice for churning out quick prototypes without much fuss.
#5: By Application
As we have seen, different filaments have different properties. Some are stronger, some cheap, while others just look good. But even the best filament will be no good if used for the wrong reasons.
The most important consideration before choosing a filament is your use for it. Depending on the intended application, some filaments would be more well-suited than others. Here are some specific use-cases that call for particular materials.
For Medical Implants
3D printers are seeing a lot of use in the medical field. Surgical implants especially are ideal targets for 3D printing.
Implants tend to be scarce and expensive. In many cases, personalized dimensions are needed, which are difficult to find in the standard lineup. 3D printed implants can help bridge this gap.
But not every filament is biocompatible. Filaments that can be used for such purposes are medically certified. Medical grade materials are usually found among resins, although such filaments do exist.
Care must be taken to print medical implants in a closed environment with hygienic conditions.
For Food Grade Products
A problem with the FDM printers is that the process traps dirt and bacteria in between the layers. This is not a problem for general-purpose products like tools or decorative items. When printing things like food containers though, the trapped germs are a big problem.
Now, using a printer with an enclosed print bed is a good solution. It greatly minimizes the contact of the layers with external particles, ensuring hygiene. Just apply a coating or two of primer to the final product to perfectly seal it.
But the problem of the material itself remains. You can’t just use any filament, as not every plastic is food safe.
PETG is the ideal choice. It is a food-grade plastic and can be sanded to a smooth finish. It is dense and strong, giving you durable food containers and bowls.
For Sports Equipment
Protective gear tends to be expensive and short-lived. Whether you are into skating or cycling, you always need good quality protective equipment.
Normally, 3D prints are not up to the task. PLA, for example, is too weak. It deforms easily on the application of physical pressure, making it useless on soaking up impacts.
TPU or Thermoplastic Polyurethane is a better choice. It is impact-resistant, which means it can withstand physical shocks without breaking. It also happens to be somewhat flexible, allowing it to bend with the contours of your body.
When flexibility is not required, ABS can be used too. Headgear is often printed using ABS, as it is a hard and durable material.
For Lab Equipment
Sports is not the only field that needs protective equipment. Lab work involves working with harsh reagents and corrosive chemicals. Specialized gloves and face shields are often required for safety.
3D printing these things is a tempting option, but most filaments are not suited for it. Plastics, as a rule, are weak to chemicals. Both acids and bases have strong reactions with most polymers.
That is where Polypropylene (PP) comes in.
PP is well known for its semi-crystalline nature. This means that the material behaves more like an inert crystal than a reactive plastic when exposed to chemicals. It is practically inert, and conventionally strong too.
Polypropylene is commonly used to create high-quality lab equipment. This includes not only protective gear but things like beakers and test tubes too.
There are a baffling number of 3D printer filaments in the market. Finding the right one from this big list can be tricky.
To help you out, we have explained the five best ways of choosing a printing filament. Strength, cost, looks, utility, and the learning curve. All of these factors are equally important, so give due consideration to each. At the end of the day though, what you should prioritize is your choice.
It isn’t that hard! Check out the best filaments in the market and find the one that suits you best.