Like it or not, you simply can’t go out and start 3D printing without some prior filament knowledge. No matter how impressive your 3D printer is, choosing the wrong filament could make your next print look like it escaped from Chernobyl. Therefore in this article I’ll be giving you the very basics of printing with the two most popular filament types – ABS and PLA.
What is 3D printing filament?
3D printers don’t just emit models right there on the spot, some sort of material must be used in order to make a model colorful, strong, heavy, or whatever else you may need it for. This material is called the filament, and it is the ingredients used in your gourmet 3D-printed sandwich. Its formal definition is actually a slender threadlike object or fiber from animal or plant-like structures (hence the Whitman quote). However, in 3D printing, it relates to the cable-like material that gets placed in a coil (or spool) onto a 3D printer. You can buy filament from stores, online, or even create your own with a filament extruder.
The Dynamic Duo
There are two commonly-used types of filament used today, namely ABS, and PLA. There are actually way more, one is probably going to be released during the time I’m writing this, but the chances are that the majority you won’t ever be using these materials. Therefore, I’ll just be comparing the two most popular thermoplastics, ABS vs PLA, and see why they are both so appealing.
The granddaddy of filaments, also known as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, is one of the most popular forms of filament you can get on the market today. Mostly used for making a variety of objects due to its strong build and slight flexibility, ABS is great, if you have a heatbed. From tools to toys, phone cases to fan blades, ABS is easy to print with – even if the fumes the come off the printing process are a bit too much for some people.
ABS is definitely the cheapest of the two, but it is suited more for the advanced users out there, due to the extra tweaking that will need to be done on your printer to get the right settings. The fact that it’s less brittle than PLA means that you won’t have to worry about damaged goods later on. The oldest filament out on the market is a great all rounder, and its overall ease of extrusion, higher temperature resistance, improved flexibility, and strength make it a great material for engineers as well for professional applications.
Up next is PLA, or polylactic acid, another popular material used among the 3D printing fans. Derived from corn and other renewable starches, this biodegradable material is both environmentally friendly and smells like sweet pancake syrup. Yum. PLA is also more rigid and “sticky” than ABS, so it’s less prone to warping. PLA doesn’t necessarily need a heatbed, but it may be good if you want a higher quality for temperatures around 50-60°C.
In the end, PLA is great for home use. Its glossy appearance, large color variety, and different transparency choices make it an ideal choice for the hobbyists and printing enthusiasts.
Below is a table that highlights the differences in each filament.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene
Polylactic acid or polylactide
Easily soluble in acetone
Hot burning plastic
Sweet cooking-oil like smell
The Pros and Cons of ABS and PLA
I am not going to tell you which one you should use, as I don’t know what you are going to be printing. But, I can tell lean you in the right direction by providing you with the pros and cons for each one. If you really enjoy the pros and can deal with the cons, then that filament is your answer.
Very sturdy and hard
More flexible – easier to work with
Suitable for machine parts
Higher melting point
Can be printed on a cold surface
Shinier and smoother appearance
Higher 3D printer speed
More rigid features
Heatbed not always necessary
That sweet smell
More difficult to print
Prone to cracking if cooled too quickly
Not suitable for using with food
That not so sweet smell
Can deform because of heat
Bent area turns white
Not suitable for using with food
Lower melting point
When to use which filament
Great, so you know the details for each type and how it makes it either good or bad to use for certain conditions. So finally I’ll be helping you out by giving you the times when you should use ABS, or when you should be focusing just on PLA.
When to use it
If the object is going to be dropped often (like tool parts).
If the object needs to cope with temperatures over 60ºC.
If you’re a 3D printing enthusiast – as much as possible.
Can sometimes be used in outdoor areas.
Perfect for gifts and prototypes.
When to stay clear
If you don’t have a heatbed .
If you want to print large objects in a place where there might be wind or changes in temp (cracking and splitting).
If the place you use doesn’t have good ventilation (smell could get bad).
If you want to make objects that might be dropped often (too brittle for tool handles).
If the object will be used in temperatures greater than 60ºC (sagging can occur).
This is only the beginning of filament types and their uses in 3D printing. Don’t forget that you can always create your own filament with one of our filament extruders. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be covering everything else you need to know. These are only two out of many different types of filament, but they’re the most widely used and easily available.