3D printing involves a wide range of materials or filaments, depending on the product being produced, the type of 3D printer being used, and many other variables. Materials for 3D printing can vary from many types of plastics to higher-end 3D printer filament such as metals, paper, and ceramics. When manufacturing a new product, it is vital to determine the right kind of 3D print material for the job.
The People’s Filament (ABS, PLA, PVA)
Most desktop 3D printers call for some type of plastic 3D print material, specifically ABS filament or PLA filament. PVA is also becoming a more widely used 3D printer filament, especially as support material (for overhangs) with dual-extruder printers. However, PVA usage is still in its infancy. The dominance of ABS vs. PLA is a long-running debate. Both 3d printing materials have their unique pros and cons, so the choice often comes down to the type of job and end-user preference.
ABS is the most ‘established’ filament, having been refined in other industries for decades. Being less sensitive to heat, ABS requires higher extrusion temperatures and a heated bed. This makes it ideal for jobs where temperature needs to be finely tuned. ABS tends to produce more detailed or defined surfaces, and is better for overhangs. Its higher-temperature extrusion also means lower friction, which means less wear and tear on the extruder. At the same time, ABS has its problems. It’s prone to warping at the bottoms and corners, so removing it from the bed can be an issue. It’s also more toxic than PLA, often emitting a strong stench.
PLA has taken significant ‘material-share’ in recent years. Its extrusion-temperature is much lower than ABS, and most often doesn’t require a heated bed. PVA tends to have a glossier finish and doesn’t warp as much as ABS. It’s a brittle yet strong 3d print material. Lastly, PLA is usually biodegradable and is odorless, in clear contrast to ABS’ sometimes-strong smell.
PVA, the least common plastic, is a low temperature water-soluble thermoplastic. Again, it’s most often used as a support material for dual-extruing printers. It has a melting point below PLA and a texture similar to ABS, so it is fairly easy to print. Dissolving PVA can be done easily with simple submersion. One drawback of this 3D printer filament is its sensitivity to water –even mild humidity can ruin any unsealed material. This means that it must be stored in a cool, dry location. In cool climates, a resealable plastic bag with desiccant might be enough, but in warmer humid weather, more caution must be taken.
Advanced 3D Print Materials
More heavy-duty commercial 3D printers often require higher-end 3D printing materials and can manufacture more specialized products. These can vary widely depending on the desired outcome. Stainless steel is one example of a 3D printed metal power that can be fired and infused with bronze. Silver can also be printed in wax first, then cast and manually polished. Ceramics is a material for 3D printing that is food-safe. It is a 3D printed ceramics powder that gets fired and glazed manually to 3D print things like coffee cups. These are just a few examples of the many higher end materials available for 3D printing.