10 Types of 3D Printing Materials
Tired of the default filaments that shipped with your printer? Well then, it is time to move on to better options.
There is a wide range of 3D printing materials available in the market. From plastics to metals, solid mixtures to liquid polymers, there are very few substances you cannot 3D print with. So here is the list of 10 types of 3D printing materials to help you get started.
Polylactic Acid or PLA is the first material most 3D printing enthusiasts start with. This is because PLA is quite easy to use, melting at even moderate temperatures. That it is also quite cheap doesn’t hurt either, as you can afford to experiment with it.
On the flip side, the PLA is weak. Both in tensile strength and durability, PLA leaves much to be desired. It degrades easily when heated too, making it unsuitable for printing outdoor objects.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is the most commonly used ‘tough’ material. Most high-quality plastic objects you buy from the market are actually made using ABS.
This is because ABS is a very strong material, retaining its shape even under high pressure. It is heat resistant too, making it suitable for prints that can be kept under harsh conditions.
The only problem is that ABS can be a bit difficult to work with. Thanks to its high melting point, you will need to raise the temperature of your printer to its limit to be able to use the filament.
Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol or PETG is another tough material to use with an FDM printer. In many ways, it is similar to ABS – strong, durable, and heat resistant. What sets PETG apart from ABS is its smoothness and density.
PETG prints are capable to be polished to an almost glossy finish. This is why the material is often used to print end products rather than just prototypes.
Another benefit of PETG is that it is food-safe. After applying some primer to the finished product, you can use it as a food container; or even for printing fancy utensils.
Most strong materials for 3D printing tend to be rigid. What if you want to print something more flexible? That is where TPU comes.
Thermoplastic Polyurethane or TPU is well known for its excellent elastic qualities. TPU has high tensile strength but is also flexible. As a result, TPU is highly shock resistant, able to shrug off physical impacts easily.
Objects like springs or sports gear are thus usually printed with TPU. It is good for anything that needs to withstand continuous stress without losing shape.
When just ‘strong’ isn’t enough, Polycarbonate is the material you use. It is one of the strongest 3D printing materials out there, eclipsed only by metal alloys and carbon fiber.
While it lacks flexibility, it is good at impact resistance. It is also very heat resistant, which can make using it a bit tricky.
But if you invest in a high-end printer, Polycarbonate is the way to go. The sheer durability of objects printed with the material makes them almost unbreakable.
Directly using metals in an FDM printer is impossible. The temperatures needed to melt a solid thread of metal would melt the extruder itself, destroying your printer.
For this, composite filaments exist. Composites mix thermoplastics like ABS or PLA with a metal. This gives you a substance that melts easily, but still possesses some properties of a metallic object.
Conductivity, for example, can be achieved using a metal composite.
Wax? Why on earth would anyone use wax in 3D printing?
Many reasons. One of which is that it is super easy to use. Wax obviously melts much more easily than any thermoplastic and can be utilized by a 3D printer at even low temperatures. Furthermore, it sets faster, which can speed up the printing process quite a bit.
Naturally, products printed with wax filaments (or their derivatives) are not meant to last. Wax is mostly intended for quick prototyping of designs, where durability doesn’t matter. Some also prefer wax for aesthetic purposes, printing sculptures, and decorative items.
Wood is not a material you can generally use in a 3D printer. This is because printers operate at high temperatures, where substances like wood or paper would usually burn.
But there are workarounds. Mixing wood with a plastic polymer-like, say PLA, makes the resulting filament workable. Depending on the quality of the material, the printed product will look and feel like real wood.
Obviously, the similarity is mostly in appearance. Making wood malleable enough to extrude takes away the rough, fibrous texture of natural wood. That being said, it is a great option for printing decorative items, where the appearance is all that matters.
With a Stereolithography printer, filaments are useless. What you are going to use are resins.
Resins are liquid polymers that solidify on exposure to UV lights. Stereolithography printers ‘cure’ vats of resin to create the object needed. As you might expect, the end result is a lot smoother and detailed than anything created by an FDM printer.
Even in resins, there are many varieties. There are resins that cure rapidly or resins that are tougher than normal. No wood or metal composites, though.
Selective Laser Sintering or SLS printers are very rare. The technology is expensive and powerful, so these printers are found only in laboratories or high-end industries.
Basically, SLS printers use an intense laser to fuse layers out of a vat of powdered material. This enables it to work with materials with extremely high melting points that an extruder would struggle with.
This of course includes most metals. Unlike FDM printers, SLS printers do not need to work with composites. They can simply melt metal in a powdered form, creating objects seemingly cast out of metal.
This allows them to create highly durable objects on par with manufactured goods. This is why this workflow is often used to fabricate machinery or automobile parts.
3D printing is a very versatile technology. There is a dizzying array of materials that can be used in printing, from simple substances like plastics and metals to exotic choices like wood or wax.
While the list is dominated by thermoplastics, not two materials are exactly the same. Some, like ABS or Polycarbonate, emphasize tensile strength and durability. Others, like wood composites or resins, are geared toward aesthetics.
Whatever your needs, our list will help you find the right material. Try out some of these materials yourself, and decide which one is the best for you.