In the industrial world, 3D printing's popularity has taken off. The Wohlers Report, often referred to as the bible of 3D printing, reports that the global amount spent on additive manufacturing rose to nearly $1.5 billion in 2019 — a tremendous increase from 2018's approximately $1.15 billion and 2017's $900,000.
As more design and engineering customers turn to 3D printing, they'll need to know how to choose the best solutions. In the 3D printing filament guide below, we'll discuss why correct filament selection is crucial and offer advice to help you choose between different 3D printer filament types.
Why 3D Printer Filament Selection Is Important
In choosing the right filament, you'll need to consider what characteristics are most important in your printer components and your finished products. Some qualities you may choose to prioritize include the following:
- Uses and desired results: What you want to get from your 3D printer will determine your chosen filaments. General all-purpose printing applications will require different filaments than more specialized uses or projects that involve printing directly onto challenging materials like plastic. You should also consider whether you want your finished products to be tough and rigid or lighter and more flexible — the answer will help determine the best filaments for your purposes.
- Printer compatibility: You'll also need to choose filaments compatible with your printer. Be sure to get filaments compatible with the temperature of your extruder reach, for instance. Compatible filaments will enhance the look and performance of your finished products and make end-users more satisfied.
- Filament color: Printer filaments come in a range of hues. Natural colors are less expensive and perfectly serviceable in many applications. Colored filaments are more costly and can help you create products that mimic the look of other materials like wood or stone.
- Budget: As you almost certainly know, 3D printers and their parts are expensive. The type of filament often makes a difference between being merely pricey and significantly more costly. Plastic tends to be the most economical option, with metal and composite choices commanding heftier prices.
In the following 3D printing materials comparison, we'll outline a few of the most common printer filament materials and explain their advantages and disadvantages so you can make an informed selection.
Plastic 3D Printer Filaments
Plastic-based printer filaments are the most common 3D printer filaments. They have a few different uses, but designers and engineers primarily want them for prototyping. Plastic filaments make for quality prototypes — they enable engineers to use materials similar to those employed in the final injection molding. Plastic printer filaments are also useful for allowing projects to meet their budgetary requirements. They also come in several different varieties, so they offer ideal flexibility for a range of project types.
Below are a few of those plastic filament types, their qualities and the pros and cons of using them:
1. Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
ABS is one of the most common plastic materials used in 3D printer filaments. Its strength and various color options make it a popular choice for desktop 3D printing, and it is common in numerous consumer products. It is particularly valuable for items that will undergo excessive wear and tear, such as toys, bicycle helmets, tool handles and phone cases.
ABS can withstand reasonably high temperatures, and it is a durable material overall. However, it requires high printing temperatures — extrusion temperatures tend to range from 410 to 480 degrees Fahrenheit. It also sometimes warps during cooling and gives off noxious fumes, so it requires a thoroughly ventilated space for printing. Pros and cons include:
- Advantages: The material offers considerable strength, durability and high temperature resistance.
- Disadvantages: It also has a tendency to warp and comes with high printing temperature requirements and unpleasant fumes.
2. Polylactic Acid (PLA)
PLA is uniquely useful because it is one of the easiest materials to use in 3D printing. It has a lower printing temperature than ABS and is more resistant to warping, though its mechanical properties are generally inferior. It comes in an extensive catalog of colors and types, so designers and engineers can readily achieve the perfect looks for their prototypes. Its ideal extrusion temperatures range from about 355 to 445 degrees Fahrenheit.
The tradeoff for how easy PLA is to work with is that it is not exceptionally strong. It also tends to shrink slightly after 3D printing, so designers and engineers will need to weigh whether the ease of working with PLA is worth a small change in dimensions.
PLA is also biodegradable, often made from natural materials like sugar cane or corn starch. It is often an ideal choice for projects in which environmental friendliness is a high priority. And unlike ABS, it does not tend to emit undesirable odors.
Because it is so easy to use and offers a range of benefits, PLA is one of the most commonly used materials for consumer 3D printing. Because of its limited strength, though, it is not always ideal for products like toys, tool handles or phone cases that will likely sustain high wear and tear or repeated dropping damage. It is also not ideal for items that will need to resist temperatures higher than about 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Summarized, the pros and cons are:
- Advantages: It's easy to use and biodegradable and offers many colors and styles.
- Disadvantages: PLA provides limited strength and heat resistance, plus limited durability.
In 3D printing, nylon is notable for its flexibility. Together, its strength, durability and flexibility make it one of the best thermoplastics on the market for products like functional prototypes, mechanical parts and tools. Nylon is also smooth and minimally abrasive, so it won't wear down your printer's nozzle. It is often more expensive than other materials, however.
Unlike many other thermoplastics, nylon absorbs moisture, so it requires storage in a cool, dry place. The advantage to this property is that nylon can take dyes before or after printing, offering unique flexibility for 3D printing projects.
Nylon's ideal extrusion temperatures range from about 465 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Its pros and cons include:
- Advantages: Nylon provides exceptional durability, flexibility and strength.
- Disadvantages: It's also susceptible to moisture and has high printing temperature requirements and high costs.
Polypropylene has an extensive range of uses. This thermoplastic finds frequent use in the automotive and professional textiles industries. It is also useful for manufacturing many common household objects, banknotes and food and pharmaceutical packaging. It is durable, flexible and lightweight, and it is also food safe and chemically resistant.
The main drawback to polypropylene is that it is much less easy to use than other materials. It is highly susceptible to warping and does not always adhere well in layers.
Polypropylene's ideal extrusion temperatures range from about 390 to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Benefits and drawbacks include:
- Advantages: It provides strong overall mechanical properties, chemical resistance and food safety.
- Disadvantages: Polypropylene has a tendency to warp, can be challenging to work with and offers inadequate layer adhesion.
5. Polycarbonate (PC)
Polycarbonate is unique in 3D printing because of its exceptional strength — it is one of the strongest materials on this list. It is advantageous in heavy-duty engineering applications that require toughness and dependability. It also stands up well to high temperatures, easily withstanding heat of up to 230 degrees Fahrenheit. Because it is strong and transparent, it is ideal for use in consumer products like TV screens, goggles, masks and even bulletproof glass. Its durability also makes it suitable for mechanical, electrical and automotive parts.
The ideal extrusion temperatures for polycarbonate range from about 520 to 590 degrees Fahrenheit. Some advantages and drawbacks are:
- Advantages: It has tremendous strength and heat resistance.
- Disadvantages: It is vulnerable to moisture and has high printing temperature needs.
Composite 3D Printer Filaments
Composite 3D printer filaments are blends of different materials — often fibers within a plastic base, for instance. They are desirable in end-use part production, especially for large, complicated pieces like those used in automotive and aerospace applications. They create highly accurate final parts, with their internal fiber reinforcement providing strength.
Below are a few types of fibers used for these filaments and their unique properties, pros and cons:
1. Carbon Fiber
Carbon fiber is exceptionally robust — it has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of reinforcement fiber currently on the market. It is also relatively rigid. Engineers often use this low-density composite in 3D-printed mechanical parts designed to represent or replace aluminum. Carbon fiber can be hard on a printer's nozzle, though, and will soon wear a brass nozzle out.
The ideal extrusion temperature for carbon fiber is about 450 to 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Pros and cons include:
- Advantages: Carbon fiber offers structural strength and is lightweight.
- Disadvantages: It creates wear and tear on the printer's nozzle.
2. Onyx FR
Onyx filaments contain a combination of carbon fiber and nylon. These filaments are strong, lightweight and inflexible, and they offer a high-quality surface finish. Onyx also resists chemicals and heat very well.
Onyx FR is the flame-retardant version of this composite. It is ideal for forming accurate parts that must withstand extreme temperatures. It can be quite expensive, however. Its ideal extrusion temperature is about 560 to 590 degrees Fahrenheit. Its advantages and drawbacks include:
- Advantages: It offers strength, low density and heat and flame resistance.
- Disadvantages: It has a high cost and high printing heat requirements.
Kevlar is exceptionally durable, known for its rugged toughness and high energy absorption. It is ideal in products that will receive heavy impacts — bulletproof vests are the most notorious example. It is as rigid as fiberglass but offers much higher ductility, essentially functioning as a flexible plastic-fiber fabric. It is ideal in many 3D printing applications, especially for creating durable, shock-absorbent, wear-resistant parts for manufacturing equipment.
Kevlar printing is relatively economical compared with parts machining, but it is expensive for applications like desktop printing.
The ideal extrusion temperature for Kevlar filaments ranges from about 480 to 520 degrees Fahrenheit, though it can withstand temperatures of about 950 degrees if necessary. Its advantages and difficulties include:
- Advantages: It offers durability, rigidity, versatility and high temperature resistance.
- Disadvantages: It calls for high printing heat requirements and introduces increased costs for desktop users.
Fiberglass filaments offer high strength at a price that fits many budgets. Fiberglass is generally more affordable than materials like carbon fiber while providing durable reinforcement. It is not as heavy or rigid as many other materials, however.
The ideal extrusion temperature for fiberglass filaments ranges from about 450 to 500 degrees Celsius. Its benefits and disadvantages include:
- Advantages: Fiberglass offers reasonable strength and costs.
- Disadvantages: It is not as weighty or stiff as some alternatives.
5. High-Strength High-Temperature (HSHT) Fiberglass
This filament material has exceptionally high heat resistance and is nearly as strong as aluminum in both high and low temperatures. It is ideal for parts that will operate with high loads in high temperatures — in molds or welding applications, for instance, or in medical autoclaves.
The ideal extrusion temperature for fiberglass filaments ranges from about 450 to 500 degrees Celsius. Additional details include:
- Advantages: It offers heat resistance, strength and durability.
- Disadvantages: It is not as stiff as materials like carbon fiber.
Metal 3D Printer Filaments
Metal 3D printer filaments are usually blends of metal powder and other materials like ABS. They are primarily used in producing functional prototypes, tools and housing. They offer consistent, reliable results, they are comparable in strength to cast parts and they are ideal for limited runs of parts in industries like aerospace. They can also create intricate geometric shapes that traditional machining and casting methods struggle to produce. Many metal filaments have extrusion temperatures of about 480 degrees Fahrenheit.
Below are a few types of metal filaments, their properties and their pros and cons:
Aluminum filaments offer exceptional strength. They can withstand high temperatures without deformation, and they are ideal for heavy wear-and-tear applications.
Like most metals, aluminum is abrasive and can be hard on a printer's nozzle. Like most metals, too, it also tends to be more expensive than alternative filament materials. Even at high heat, aluminum powders can be difficult to meld, unlike steel powders, which bond easily.
The ideal extrusion temperature for aluminum filaments is about 350 to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. The materials pros and cons include:
- Advantages: It provides strength, durability and heat and chemical resistance.
- Disadvantages: It creates nozzle wear, has bonding difficulties and requires a high cost.
2. Tool Steel
Tool steel is exceptionally hard, tough and durable. As its name suggests, tool steel is ideal for creating tooling parts — virtually any component that molds, stamps or cuts during production. Although tool steel can be challenging to machine, it is relatively easy to extrude and print, saving time and labor. Tool steel can be expensive to 3D print, though the process is generally less expensive than trying to machine the same components.
The ideal extrusion temperature for tool steel is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Its advantages and drawbacks include:
- Advantages: It provides high heat and abrasion resistance, durability, hardness and longevity.
- Disadvantages: Tool steel comes at a higher cost.
3. Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is strong and offers exceptional corrosion resistance. It is sometimes heat-treatable as well. For these reasons, it has an extensive array of uses across many industries, from manufacturing to technology.
The ideal extrusion temperature for stainless steel is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Further details include:
- Advantages: Stainless steel provides reasonable strength and corrosion resistance.
- Disadvantages: However, it's limited in strength compared with other metal options.
Copper filaments are soft and ductile, and they are excellent electrical conductors. Because they are so conductive, they are ideal for parts for heat sinks and heat exchangers, power distribution components and antennae. They are also suitable for many types of manufacturing equipment, and their softness allows them to form complex, hard-to-machine shapes.
The ideal extrusion temperature for copper ranges from about 375 to 460 degrees Fahrenheit. Its benefits and cons are:
- Advantages: Copper has high electroconductivity and softness.
- Disadvantages: It also provides only limited strength and durability.
Like tool steel, titanium can be challenging to machine because it is so tough and durable. Using titanium filaments in 3D printing, on the other hand, makes production easier and more cost-effective. Titanium filaments are strong, lightweight and resistant to high heat and many chemicals. They are ideal in various manufacturing applications, particularly those where a high strength-to-weight ratio is desirable, such as in aerospace components.
The ideal extrusion temperature for titanium filaments is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Their advantages and drawbacks are:
- Advantages: Titanium provides strength, durability and heat and chemical resistance, as well as being lightweight.
- Disadvantages: Its cost is higher compared with other printing filaments.
6. Superalloys (Cobalt-Chrome and Nickel-Chromium)
Superalloys like cobalt-chrome and nickel-chromium are highly desirable for components destined for extreme working environments. They are incredibly strong and durable, and they are often useful for parts in products like turbines and rockets.
The ideal extrusion temperature for superalloys is about 480 degrees Fahrenheit. Their benefits and disadvantages include:
- Advantages: Superalloys offer strength, hardness and durability.
- Disadvantages: They are higher in cost compared with other printing filaments.
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