While different types of 3D printing materials exist, the most common on the market for consumers today is known as 3D printing filament. Thread-like in appearance (though much thicker), 3D printing filament is heated and extruded through a moving nozzle. The material is layered vertically until a 3D object with height, width, and depth is formed. From standard plastic to simulated metal or wood, there is a variety of 3D printing filaments to choose from.
It’s extremely important to select the proper filament for your 3D printer. Using a filament with the wrong diameter or settings will inevitably cause a print failure, if not a significant mess (or worse, printer damage). Down time, cleaning, and repair can be avoided once you understand which filament is best for your printer and purpose. All 3D printers have a unique set of temperature, speed, and functional ranges in their respective designs that you should review & consider when selecting filament.
Each filament material has its own set of characteristics – both in terms of appearance, and physical attributes. There’s flexible filament and glow in the dark filament; material that’s conductive or magnetic. Among the more exotic filaments, there’s even simulated bamboo. Each offers its own set of properties that you’ll need to understand to optimize your prints. New filaments are being released each year with modified properties that include elasticity, transparency, high-strength, water solubility, electrical resistance or conductivity, and UV sensitivity.
You should also consider which properties are most necessary for the object being printed. Will the material be used indoors, or outdoors? Does the part need to move and flex, or should it be absolutely rigid? What kind of forces will be applied to the printed object? What kind of finishing steps will be applied to the material (e.g. drilling, sanding)?
Popular 3D printing filaments.
Of the many 3D printing filaments available, certain materials are used more commonly than others. Today we’ll be looking more closely at four of the most commonly used 3D printing filaments: ABS, PLA, HIPS, and PVA.
ABS and PLA are used for a variety of 3D printed objects, are available in a wide range of colors, and are most often used for their versatile material properties, ease of use, and limited printing difficulty. While PLA and ABS share some overlap in characteristics, they differ. ABS is extremely durable, used for outdoor furniture, toys, consumer products, and other high impact applications. PLA is fairly strong, but may be more brittle depending on the object’s geometry. PLA is also easier to print with, as it does not require a heated build platform as compared to ABS (though one can be helpful).
PVA and HIPS are considered “support” filaments; they help temporarily support an object’s overhanging geometry. Primarily used for dual extrusion 3D printers, PVA and HIPS are the most common support filaments available. Simply immerse your completed object in the appropriate solvent and the support material will dissolve over the course of several hours, leaving only the actual PLA or ABS 3D print.
With so many filaments ready at your disposal, choosing a starting point may seem daunting. Start with basic prints using ABS or PLA (depending on your printer) and don’t be afraid of trial and error with different manufacturers. In due time, you’ll be able to recognize and understand the behaviors of different filaments. Even ABS or PLA from different manufacturers will feature various performance differences due to the manufacturing process, material content, and even the pigment used for color itself. For example, red PLA from Colorfabb prints between 190-210°C; a similar red PLA from Makerbot may print better at 220°C. Specialty filaments that contain various substances such as metallic powder, wood grains, and UV sensitive particles may require additional experimentation with print speeds and extrusion rates.