In this big guide about filament for 3D printing, you will learn all you need to know to choose the right material for your next 3D printing project. We will touch the most common filaments used in FDM 3D printing. And we will give you examples of what the different filaments can be use for. We will also look into what you should take into consideration when printing with the different filaments.
Furthermore, we will look into more demanding filaments for more experienced users, that have big potential in a lot of uses and industries.
Not all filaments will be compatible with all 3D printers. If you are unsure about what filaments fit your 3D printer or application, don’t hesitate to contact us at Creative Tools.
PLA – Polylactic acid
A great all-around filament
PLA filament is the most widely used filament in FDM 3D printing today. The ease of use for all 3D printers and users alike, makes this a great choice especially in the beginning when you are getting to know your 3D printer. PLA is very form-stable and will not shrink much when printed (max. 0.41%) depending on your setup, settings and the design itself. The material has a high layer adhesion and can be printed in relatively low temperatures, somewhere between 180-220 degrees on the nozzle and 20-60 degrees on the build plate. The material will print on every FDM 3D printer on the market, as it has no special requirements on type of nozzle or build plate. For best visual results, a cooling fan is recommended during the print job, to cool down the object, but it is not necessary for printing.
PLA is a very stiff material compared to other filaments and is therefore suited for applications where the part should not flex a lot. PLA is great when you want to print models, prototypes, fixtures and jiggs. Even finished products, where you want a high visual aesthetic, but when it won’t be located/used in hot environments.
Can’t stand higher temperatures
PLA have a glass transition temperature of about 60 degrees and will deform from around 55 degrees and upwards. A lot of manufacturers make modified PLA filaments. By introducing other elements to the PLA material it is possible to make it tougher and withstand higher temperatures. The modified PLA is often called X-PLA, HT-PLA, PLA+ and similar names. If you have higher demanding applications, you can contact your supplier to see if you need a modified PLA filament or not.
Can be post-processed and painted
The material is easy to post-process with sandpaper, but can be tricky to process with machines as with high revolutions the temperature starts to build up and will melt the plastic. Parts fabricated in PLA are easy to paint with a lot of different types of paint. For the best result, apply a suitable primer before painting.
“Filled” PLA filaments for unique aestetics and feel
Some manufacturers make so called “filled” filaments. These have been infused with fibers or particles to give the filament a unique feel and look to it. This includes fibers from plants, wood and metal. Even stone, clay, plaster and carbon fibers are used to give a specific impression of the finished part. This is very useful for architects and artists, wishing a more natural look on their 3D printed parts. Something to keep in mind is that a hardened steel nozzle, with a 0.6mm opening or more, is recommended for almost all of these PLA variations, to minimize the risk of clogging and excessive wear.
Pros with PLA filaments
- Easy to 3D print
- A wide selection of colours and fillings
- Stable in dimension
- Low cost/kg
- Can be printed in an open 3D printer (with no walls/doors)
- Does not smell when printed
Cons with PLA filaments
- Starts to deform at about 55 degrees
- Difficult to post-process using machines
- Can be too stiff or hard for some applications
Examples of what PLA filaments are used for
- Models that will not be exposed to higher temperatures
- Interior details
PETG, polyethylene terephthalate glycol
Beautiful fixtures for sales stands, etc.
PETG is often referred to as a combination of PLA and ABS, there is something about it, even if it’s not entirely true. PETG is more tough, durable and can withstand higher temperatures than PLA. With a glass transition temperature of about 80 degrees, PETG filaments can have many uses. A fixture or stand in a glass showcase where the part both have to look good and withstand high temperatures from the sun or high power lamps as well as parts for cars on hot summer day – PETG can be a great alternative. It is even great for fixtures in a workshop as the material does not break in the same way as PLA, and can withstand hits much better.
What to keep in mind when printing with PETG
PETG can be printed in an open 3D printer – just like PLA – and it does not need to have the same powerful part cooling as PLA. This material tends to warp or crack in between layers if it’s cooled too fast. PETG has a tendency to absorb moisture. That combined with the need for tuning in the filament will result in poor surface and porous parts. PETG has a higher density than PLA and this will give your part a nice “heavy” feel if handled, compared to many other filaments. PETG filaments are available in a wide range of colours ranging from solid to transparent and with metallic flakes.
More demanding than PLA
Something that is good to know is that PETG is a material that is a bit “sticky”. Some filament brands won’t print well at higher speeds. To get the best result, keep the print speed at around 35 mm / second and tune in the temperature-, cooling-, retraction- and bridging-parameters as this is more sensitive than PLA.
PETG can withstand higher temperatures
As PETG can withstand higher temperatures than PLA, it equally has to be printed at higher temperatures. PETG is usually printed at around 250 degrees on the nozzle and 80 degrees on the print bed. Depending on the 3D printer and the design of the part, it is possible to print without a heated bed, but not bigger parts as it tends to warp. PETG has a tendency to “float” a bit, even at room temperatures, that is why it is not recommended to use PETG in mechanical parts where there is a lot of pressure on the plastic part itself. A rethink of the design using metal bushing, bigger washers or some other way to spread the pressure on the part is recommended.
Harder to paint on PETG
PETG is not as easy to paint as PLA. The naturally occuring shiny surface combined with the chemical composition, results in a difficult surface for paint to adhere to. Because of this, it is important to post-process the printed part and find a suitable primer for the colour you want to use.
It is very common to use PETG filaments combined with carbon fibers, to make a filament that is stiffer and more rigid. If you choose this kind of filament, it is important to use a hardened steel nozzle or similar, as it will wear a brass nozzle out very fast. Something to note is that manufacturers often recommend using a 0.6 mm nozzle or bigger, to lower the risk of clogs (when the filament builds up in the nozzle and can’t make its way out due to fibers blocking the opening). When adding carbon fibers, the filament can tolerate about 5-10 degrees higher temperatures and it lowers the risk of warping significantly.
Pros with PETG filaments
- Can withstand higher temperatures than PLA
- Have a very shining finish
- Tough material (will not break suddenly)
- Can withstand some chemicals
Cons with PETG filaments
- Flows out when under pressure
- Sticky when printing and risk of oozing
- A little harder to print than PLA (correct printing parameters needed)
Examples of parts in PETG
- Fixtures in higher temperatures
- Accessories for vehicles
- Accessories for outdoor applications
ABS and ASA
Great filaments for demanding applications
ABS (Acrylonitril-Butadieen-Styreen) and ASA (Acrylic Styrene Acrylonitrile) are two materials that are so similar that we will cover them both at the same time. The biggest difference between these two is that ASA tolerates UV light better than ABS. ABS will become yellow/milky when exposed to UV light and might become brittle sooner than ASA. ABS is often used on an industrial scale as it is cast in molds for mass-producing parts.
Withstands high ambient temperatures
These materials are an obvious choice if you want to make parts that can withstand temperatures up to about 100 degrees without softening and deforming. ABS can easily be sanded by hand, in a machine or smoothed with acetone, to get a nice shiny surface. ABS/ASA is often used for fixtures and jigs in more demanding situations, end products that must withstand being handled less carefully, items that can be out for longer periods, the automotive industry and mechanical items that do not require metal mounts.
With the right design, it is actually possible to make an assembly of various things better than with metal. As the ABS plastic is a bit flexible, it does not transmit vibrations and resonance as much in a construction, at the same time as it can withstand being clamped. The higher price of ASA means that ABS is often the choice if the application does not require it to be UV resistant. The density of these materials is lower than PLA and it is thus easier to get a larger design on a product without increasing the weight of the part.
Good to know when 3D printing with ABS or ASA
These materials tend to warp if cooled down too quickly. For small details, it may be enough to print a so-called “draft shield”, but for slightly larger parts an enclosed 3D printer (with walls) is required which ensures that the print temperature remains even (without venting from the surroundings). Printing with an enclosed 3D printer also has more positive effects: ABS can smell quite a lot and can also be a health hazard if inhaled.
To get a good starting point for printing ABS, it is recommended to print with 240 degrees on the nozzle and 110 degrees on the heated bed. You should not turn on the 3D printer fan to cool down the print. You can advantageously activate the fan a little on exterior walls and bridging in the print settings, it can give the model a nicer surface finish.
ABS and ASA shrink slightly after printing (approx. 3%). It is good to know and take into account when designing your model and working with these materials.
Pros with ABS and ASA filaments
- Low material cost
- Printed models can withstand ambient temperatures of up to 100 degrees
- Easy post processing
- Impact resistant
Cons with ABS and ASA filaments
- Higher risk of warping during printing compared to other materials
- 3D printer with a heated bed is required
- Strong smell when printed
- Shrinking of the printed part compared to CAD design
Example of what is suitable for 3D printing with ABS / ASA
- Parts for the automotive industry
- Parts for the medical industry
- Jigs that will withstand heat
- Outdoor applications
- Mechanical parts
- Items that can be handled and washed in the dishwasher
- Items for (and around) electronics
PC – Polycarbonate
A material for demanding mechanical parts
PC (Polycarbonate) is a very competent material. However, it requires an enclosed 3D printer (with walls). PC is used for police shields and aircraft windows, among other things, as it is naturally very transparent. In 3D printing, you can often get the material naturally without color, white or black. It is most often used for very demanding details, where it is not acceptable for it to break off. PC is very flexible and has a high layer adhesion (if you make sure it does not cool down during printing).
For best results, print with PC filament on a 3D printer that has an enclosed build volume (3D printer with walls). The air inside the 3D printer should be heated up to approx. 60-80 degrees. PC has a natural self-extinguishing ability that makes it optimal to use for e.g. mounting boxes for electronics or other machine mounting where it risks getting hot. The plastic first starts to deform at 150 degrees, so demanding parts for the automotive industry or similar are not a problem, like-wise jigs that go into paint boxes or steam washing are not a problem.
However, all these good qualities come with one drawback. The filament is extremely hygroscopic. This means that the material absorbs water from the air, which in turn boils off when printed and creates small bubbles. This makes the material porous and brittle. To avoid this, dry the filament in a dryer (or oven) before using it to print with. For long print jobs, you should also dry it while it is printing. Good initial temperature is 280 degrees on the nozzle and 120 degrees on the build platform. And do not forget to turn off the fan so that the plastic does not cool down during printing.
PC filamentss are often mixed with ABS. This is to make the filament a little easier to print with, as it requires less heat and the risk of warping is reduced.
Pros with PC filaments:
- Can withstand high heat
- Can be bent without breaking
- Very impact resistant
Cons with PC filaments:
- High risk of warping
- Requires the printer to handle high temperatures
- Highly hygroscopic
- Risk of oozing
Examples of what is suitable for 3D printing with PC filaments:
- Mechanical parts that must withstand hard blows
- Parts for the automotive industry
- Demanding parts for outdoor activities
- Aircraft industry
Nylon filament – Polyamide
Perfect for gears and hinges
Nylon (also called Polyamide) has a low friction in the material and is therefore perfect for making “print-in-place” hinges, gears and other mechanical parts that must be movable and in contact with other parts. However, nylon is very hygroscopic, so it is good to dry the filament before you print and preferably during the time it it is printed (at least for longer print jobs). Nylon has a very good layer adhesion and is incredibly strong and also a bit flexible.
Nylon is often combined with carbon or fiberglass to create a stiffer material that does not shrink as much as “pure” nylon, and to raise the glass transition temperature from approx. 75 degrees to 85 degrees. It gives a very nice finish that almost makes the layer lines disappear. If you want to read more about this, we recommend this article by Simplify3D.
Pros with Nylon filaments:
- Very impact resistant
- Withstands heat well
- Good layer adhesion
- High abrasion resistance
Cons with Nylon filaments:
- Highly hygroscopic
- Tend to warp
- Few colors to choose from
Examples of what is suitable for 3D printing with Nylon:
- Mechanical parts
- Automotive industry
TPU filaments – Thermoplastic polyurethane
Even the hardware can be soft at times
TPU is a term that covers several types of plastic, but all of which are soft and flexible. TPU is available in many different stiffnesses that are measured in the “shore scale” and depending on the product you want to produce, you then choose the stiffness that suits the application.
Print settings and requirements for 3D printing with TPU
Not all 3D printers can print in TPU. The softer variants of TPU are more difficult to print with than the harder variants. You often have to slow down the print speed to not risk it getting tangled in the extruder. For the simplest and best results, a “Direct Drive” setup is recommended, where the extruder is close to the nozzle so the distance between the feed wheel and where the plastic is to be melted out is as short as possible.
TPU is found in very many products such as. mobile phone covers, protection of various kinds, products to be worn on or in clothing, contact surfaces on prostheses, various grip surfaces on tools, shoes, molds and details for the automotive industry. Depending on the chemical composition, the glass conversion temperature can be from 60 degrees to 130 degrees, which means that you can find a flexible material that fits in the pocket around a phone, a keychain or in the engine compartment of a car.
Pros with TPU filaments:
- Withstands oil and grease
- Withstand heat
- Very impact resistant
Cons with TPU filaments:
- Direct drive extruder is preferred
- Must be printed slowly
Examples of what is suitable for 3D printing with TPU:
- Applications in the medical industry