Why are filaments so expensive and what you can do about it?
When buying filaments for your 3D printer, a common question may come across your mind – Why are these things so expensive? After all, it’s only a piece of plastic, right?
Yes, but there is more to 3D filaments than what meets the eye! We invite you to explore with us some of the factors which affect the price of a filament. We shall immerse ourselves in the basics of filaments and what it costs to get them from the manufacturer to your home. In addition, we will offer several secrets that will help you reduce the cost of filaments without sacrificing quality.
3D printer filaments are made of various polymers, which is the technical name for various ‘plastics’. Polymers are chains of repeating segments of molecules. The most common ones include ABS (a co-polymer of acrylonitrile, butylene, and styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid). We invite you to learn more about them in the following article. Never less, 3D printing may utilize almost any polymer, if it has the following properties.
It may be remolded when heated – Essential for 3D printing.
It can be “stretched out” when heated – Though it must not “leak” once it has been set.
It is durable when cooled down – This property can be enhanced or compromised based on your project.
The quality of a filament is determined by these properties. Additionally, you may require further special abilities for a specific product, such as flexibility (nylon), weather resistance (ASA), or outright strength (polycarbonate). In the graphic below, you can see which materials are the superheroes in their respective categories.
The cost of a polymer plays the main role in the overall price of the filament. Each comes from a different source and requires various techniques to prepare.
Quality of a polymer can also be reduced by impurities, which are common when it is prepared by cheaper methods. I can testify to this with my own experience. Even though I have been at first pleased to find cheap filaments on some e-commerce websites, I have always ended up with low-quality products, that leaked, cracked, smelled bad, etc.
Let’s talk about a less mentioned, yet very important part of filaments – the additives! The color of filaments alone suggests that they contain something more than just pure plastic. It is fascinating to explore the variety of enhancements that can be included in a filament and the effect that they have on its price.
The most common additive is a dye. Dyes vary wildly in quality – factors such as color, solubility, UV resistance, and toxicity can play a role in their price. This is the case especially for fluorescent dyes which glow in dark, or UV active dyes which glow under UV light.
Additives can also improve the physical properties of the product. A very important example is hardness, which can vary wildly even when we consider a single type of polymer. This is achieved by adding only small amounts of a necessary additive. But it’s by far not the only property that we can introduce!
Other common additives include flame retardants and autoxidizing agents. The small amount of additives does not impact the stability of the polymer, yet it expands the possible applications of 3D printed products. How cool is that?!
3. Processing, packaging and a niche market
Let’s take a look at a less technical topic, which is an issue of both quality and quantity. The processing of polymers into filaments is not necessarily expensive, but it requires special equipment to achieve their uniform dimensions. You may have already found that out the hard way, since cheap filaments often end up getting stuck in the printer. The use of expensive specialized equipment necessary for precise extrusion will be reflected in the price.
After extrusion, the filament is cut, packaged and sold not in bulk, but in single threads. It is necessary to wind every single filament onto a plastic spindle, which is called spooling. The spool adds to the weight quite a bit, which increases the amount of fuel required to ship them. It is also inefficient since the rolled up filaments contain a lot of air. This contributes to the price as well.
We must also account for the size of the market. This is the concept known as the rule of supply and demand. 3D printing is a fast growing, but still a niche market. This means that there aren’t many filament manufacturers, especially ones who would sell high quality products. The demand is increasing, but the production is expensive and low in volume – think of Tesla cars as another example. Thus, the manufacturers can ask for more money than for other polymer products, such as plastic spoons.
Tips – How to reduce the cost of a filament
From the reasons we have given, it may seem that compromising on the price of a filament will most likely result in a bitter surprise – and you would be right! Still, there are ways to get around this. Here are is a brief overview of the top 5 tips to lower 3D printing costs.
- Buying in bulk is always cheaper than by single spools. You may buy multicolor sets, or simply order a wholesale package of filaments.
- Read reviews, recommendations and compare prices. Thanks to the internet, we have all the information at our disposal!
- Make sure to plan your project thoroughly. Not only that you will not overpay for unnecessarily expensive polymers, but you will end up using less.
- Consider extruding your own 3D filaments from granulates. As seen in the table below, filaments are far more expensive than granulate they are made from.
- Recycle your products. This requires specialized equipment that reduces plastic products to granulate.
|Material||Filament price/USD per kg||Granulate price/USD per kg|
(*Comparison of popular filament and granulate prices can be found here*)
Material, additives and production costs all add up to the final market value. But don’t worry; we have also given you several ways to reduce the cost of your 3D printing operation! Still, there is so much more to 3D printing! Be sure to check out further articles on our blog to learn more about specific types of filaments, extruders and recycling.
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