3D Printing Filament Guide 2017: ABS vs PLA vs many materials
The next wave in the prosumer FFF 3D printing evolution isn’t about 3D printers, it’s about the plastic filament used to make 3D prints. This is a comprehensive list of available filament, plus a guide with tips on how to choose the right filament for your next creative project.
While a new prosumer 3D Printer enters the market almost every day and the printing techniques is still advancing with each generation, most are actually perfecting existing concepts, especially with Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D Printers (also known as FDM printers). They’re getting better at printing more accurately at higher speeds, but the increments are getting smaller. This is not because the technique has reached it technical limits, but it’s chemical limits. The problem that withholds FFF printers to get a lot faster is that after Fusing the Filament to it’s molten state and extruding it accurately, it has to be cooled down to get solid again. Most new FFF Printers have active coolers to help with this, but there’s a limit to how hard you can blow air onto something before it will deform instead of cool—or sound like a jet engine.
When you’ve accepted that 3D Printing takes time, you can open your eyes to getting creative with different kinds of filament. And that’s where innovations are going a lot faster right now! In this post I will write about the many special kinds of 3D Printing Filament that are on the market today. Some require a 3D printer with special features to print well, but many actually work well in almost every FFF printer, maybe even yours!
The Famous Two
Before I go into special filaments, let’s take a look at the two most-used ones: ABS and PLA. You’ve probably heard of both of them and you might also know that you printer is designed to print with both of them or just one of the two. What are the differences between these thermoplastics?
ABS is short for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. It’s is widely available and has been a very popular plastic in the development of prosumer 3D printing from the start. It melts consistently at around 225 degrees Celsius, which can easily be achieved with small and home-safe electronics. It is relatively strong, a little flexible and has a relatively high “glass transition temperature” of around 100 degrees. That’s the temperature above which a plastic goes from it’s solid state to a pliable state where it can loose it’s shape. These characteristics mean ABS is very suitable to 3D Print functional parts, like spare parts for machines or objects that are exposed to high temperatures like sunlight or hot water.
ABS is dissolvable in acetone and this characteristic is sometimes used to smooth the surface of a 3D Print. Sanding an ABS print and then wiping it with acetone will dissolve the outer layer, essentially smoothing it by reducing the visibility of layers in the print. To fully take advantage of this you smooth prints with acetone vapor—a technique deserves the “don’t try this at home” warning, but gives otherwise matte ABS prints a very glossy finish.
The downsides of ABS are the smell it produces while being heated—which is neither nice nor healthy to live or work around – and the fact that it expands and shrinks in the process of being heated and cooled down again. The shrinkage in particular is a problem for 3D printing, because it causes 3D prints to curl up while cooling too quickly, which is called warping. To counter this, ABS has to be printed on a heated build plate—and preferably in an enclosed, heated build chamber—so it stays warm during printing and can cool down slowly when printing is done.
A heated build plate and chamber usually increase the price of a 3D printer and it uses considerably more electricity. So while ABS also comes in green, most—but not all (see below)—kinds of ABS far from it in terms of health and climate awareness.
Enviro ABS was created to bridge the gap between the printing performance of ABS, and the environmental friendliness of PLA. As the first biodegradable ABS on the market, Enviro reduces the environmental impact of 3D printing with ABS, while providing the highest quality materials and extrusion processes available.
PLA—or Polylactic Acid—is a completely different kind of thermoplastic. It’s being made from corn starch or sugar cane and is biodegradable, so it’s more environmentally-friendly than ABS. It melts can melt at a lower temperature between 190 and 210 degrees and doesn’t smell bad when it does. In fact many people like the smell of hot PLA. I’ve even read that people refer to it as the smell of waffles—but they probably have never been to Belgium.
Because PLA flows a little better than ABS, you can print more detailed objects with it at higher speeds. It’s especially good at producing sharp corners. It also is a lot less prune to warping, so you won’t necessarily need a heated print bed to print PLA. However, if you want to print objects with a large flat bottom surface without the edges warping a bit, a little bit of heat (around 60 degrees) from the bed can counter this. PLA prints have a relatively glossy surface compared to ABS, but the amount of gloss depends on the vendor, color and print temperature.
Unlike ABS, PLA isn’t dissolvable in acetone. It can be dissolved in Sodium Hydroxide. That’s what’s in drain cleaner and if you’ve ever used that you know that’s dangerous stuff to say the least. Some people use PLA as dissolvable supports for ABS prints on dual extrusion printers, but I would advice to only use Sodium Hydroxide when you have a nozzle that’s clogged by PLA. And even then you should very carefully choose a container for this, since Sodium Hydroxide can also dissolve some types of glass. If that scares you: just buy a new nozzle!
The optional heated bed has to be set around 60 degrees, because this is the glass transition temperature of PLA. This means that it gets pliable above that, which means it’s not very suitable for objects that get exposed to high temperatures. It’s also fairly brittle, so you wouldn’t want to use it for functional parts that have to last a while.
PLA is also available widely and is simply easier to print with than ABS, so the conclusion is that PLA is currently the best “standard” material voor home and office 3D Printing of decorative objects. Although recently introduced “Next Gen” filaments are trying to take PLA’s place. More about those at the bottom of this post.
Special Effects Filament
Special Effects PLA
Because PLA is used a lot for decorative purposes, it’s offered in a lot of different colors. But also with special effects. Here are a few:
- Glow-in-the-Dark PLA
Charge it with a light source, switch of the lights et voila: your print lights up at night!
- Photochromatic PLA
Changes color when exposed to UV-light, like sunlight.
- Temperature Sensitive PLA
This also changes color, but does so based on the temperature. Available in Temperature Sensitive Blue-to-White PLA and other colors.
- Sparky PLA
Contains glitters, obviously.
Special Effects ABS
ABS is generally available in less colors than PLA, but I found one that might interesting.
- Temperature Sensitive ABS.
As you might have read in my Builder Dual Feed Review, different colors of PLA can be mixed to create new colors and even gradients. But PLA can also be mixed with… pretty much everything! Some blends change it’s appearance and other change it’s characteristics. Lets check them out!
- PLA + PHA
Earlier I mentioned that while PLA is the easiest material for 3D Printing, it’s also very brittle. Dutch Filament manufacturer Colorfabb improved on this and developed its own unique blend of PLA/PHA which results in a tougher and less brittle PLA 3d printing filament. PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate) is like PLA a bio-polyester, so the blend is still 100% biodegradeable.
- PLA + Wood
Contains of wood fibers. When printing your studio will actually smell like a wood workshop! They’re available from different manufacturers and they differ in color and wood source.
- PLA + Bamboo
Contains 20% of bamboo fibers. Other than most wood-filament (except Laywoo-D3), bamboo filament prints brighter or darker depending on the temperature. By varying at different stages in the print – which can be done with software like Simplify3D – you can create interesting effects. Below are some prints I made for with ColorFabb BambooFill (Review)
- PLA + Brick
Contains milled chalk fragments and makes your prints look like sandstone.
- PLA + Bronze
Because this filament contains actual bronze particles, it can be polished. But it will also corrode like a bronze statue! I made the 3D Print below with ColorFabb bronzeFill (Review). The image below is a 3D print I made after polishing, a salt and vinegar treatment plus a few weeks in my garden:
- PLA + Copper
Different metal, different effect!
- PLA + Brass Printing with a composite of PLA and Brass makes for a gold-like effect!
- PLA + Stainless Steel
Stainless Steel PLA is of course the best material to 3D Print the famous Terminator Skull. Proto Pasta manufactures a great Polishable Stainless Steel PLA.
- PLA + Iron
The great thing about Iron is that it’s magnetic! Below is an unpolished print I made with Proto Pasta Magnetic Iron. On top is a small White Board Magnet.
- Smart ABS
There aren’t a lot of special kinds of ABS, but Smart ABS (also known als Pro ABS) is said to offer better layer bonding and 30% less warping-causing shrinkage. Because ABS is mainly used for functional parts, Smart ABS doesn’t come in a lot of colors.
- Bendable ABS
When it comes to flexibility, this material sits somewhere in the middle between ABS and Flexible Filament (more on that later). Bendlay, as it’s called, seems to be a modified ABS that’s both clear and very bendable. It’s said to be 200% more bendable than than ABS and doesn’t generate white stretch marks while bending.
PET (also known as PolyEthylene Terephthalate). In its original state is a colorless and crystal clear material, but it’s also available in many colors. PET is a fairly stiff and very lightweight material, which is very strong and impact-resistant. My personal favorite material for everyday 3D prints is InnoPET, because it’s just as easy to print with as PLA, but is a lot stronger. I designed and printed this door hook extender which is still intact after more than a year:
Poly (ethylene-co-trimethylene terephthalate), or PETT, is a PET copolymer. A well-known example is Taulman T-Glase. It’s printed at a higher temperature and delivers exceptionally strong prints.
PETG is short for poly (ethylen Terephthalateco-1, 4-cylclohexylenedimethylene terephthalate) and is also a PET copolymer. It claims to have the strength of ABS, while printing as easy as PLA.
When a 3D print requires to be very strong, Nylon is a good option. It usually prints in white and is available in different formulas. Taulman, for instance, makes Nylon 618, Nylon 645 and Bridge Nylon, which apparently has great bridging capabilities. Nylons print at a relatively high temperature (245 – 250 degrees Celsius) but – contrary to what you might think – print odorless.
- XT Copolyester
ColorFabb XT is a polymer is specifically designed for 3D printing: it’s tough, print’s odorless, BPA free and FDA food-contact compliant. It’s available a crystal clear neutral version and an increasing amount of colors, like this orange color which I used to print an ultra-strong beer bottle carrier:
- XT + Carbon
ColorFabb also produced XT-CF20 — a blend of XT and 20% Carbon Fibers which makes it strong, flexible and gives a nice matte finish when printed.
Flexible filament goes beyond bending. It’s more like rubber. When it comes to Flexible Filament, it’s all about finding a balance between flexibility (softness) and printability. This softness is sometimes indicated with a Shore value (like 85A or 60D) Higher Shore value means less flexibility. The above list describes increasing hardness. Harder filaments (less flexible) are easier to 3D print with compared to softer, more flexible filaments. Generally speaking, 3D printers with Direct Drive extruders can print softer materials better than those with Bowden Extruders. As with other materials, consult your manufacturer which flexible filament works best.
Below is a Video Demonstration of a 3D print I made with Green Flexible Filament:
Here are a few different kinds of Flexible Filament:
Thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) – sometimes referred to as thermoplastic rubber – is very flexible plastic. A lot of printers have difficulties printing with it, because of it’s softness which can result in extruder jams. A popular brand of TPE Filament is Ninjaflex.
- Flexible PLA
Also known as Soft PLA, this is a modified, softer PLA plastic which is a generally stiffer than TPE. It’s available as Flex EcoPLA and other brands.
TPU stands for thermoplastic polyurethane, and has many useful properties, including elasticity, transparency, and resistance to oil, grease and abrasion.
I could find the relative softness of this Thermoplastic Co-Polyester, but it’s available as FlexFill from Formfutura.
I added this one after a comment. FPE (Flexibel PolyEster) is often compared with Soft-PLA, but FPE has much higher thermal resistance (glass transition temperature of 95 °C).
Dissolvable filaments are generally used to print support structures with dual extruder printers.
PVA (Polyvinyl acetate) is a component of a widely used glue type, like glue sticks or wood glue. It is dissolvable in water, which makes it very safe to experiment with. It’s typically used as support material for PLA 3D Prints. While I was experimenting with it on the Leapfrog Creatr I discovered that it can be hard to print with, because it doesn’t stick very to build plates very well. Be sure to don’t print PVA too hot, because it can turn into tar and jam your extruder.
High Impact Polystyrene is dissolvable in Limonene, which is a quite strong chemical. It’s generally used to print support structures for ABS prints. It’s widely available.
This line of filament consists of foamy, felty filaments with a porous structure. With this filament you can build porous flexible objects.
- Jelly Filament
This material is made from a rubber-elastomeric polymer and a PVA-component. That means that part of this filament is water soluble. Once you rinse this material in water, the PVA component dissolves and the rubber polymer remains as your micro-porous object. It’s available as Porolay Gel-lay.
- Foamy Filament
Fels like soft rubber with holes and is therefore ideal for printing soft rubber-like objects, such as bendable suits and sponge-like objects, ink-reservoirs, bio-cells, micro-foam and elastics. Available as Lay-fomm 40 and Lay-fomm 60.
- Felty Filament
Available as Lay-Felt, this material may be used for semi-permeable membranes and filters, artificial paper and “future cloths”.
Next Generation Filament
While ABS and PLA are still the most popular types of filament for everyday use, filament manufacturers are trying to come up with next-gen alternatives that aim to be the “best of both worlds”—being as strong as ABS with the printability of PLA. Here are a few brands to consider.
- ColorFabb nGen
nGen with Eastman Amphora™ AM3300 3D polymer, it has a melting temperature of 220-240 degrees Celsius so it can be printed on most 3D printers. At 85 degrees Celsius, it has a higher glass transition temperature than PLA. A heated bed of 75 – 85 degrees Celsius is advised, although it can be printed on a cold bed with a layer of BuildTak or 3DLac. nGen’s main USP seems to be its stability, ensuring a steady flow through the extruder.
- Taulman N-Vent
Also made with Eastman Amphora™ 3D Polymer—but a different kind: AM1800—Taulman N-Vent‘s USP is it’s FDA-approval for food contact. Its printing temperature range is rather narrow between 250 – 255 degrees Celsius, but it promises to be as strong as ABS, but more dimensionally stable (less warping). It needs a heated around 70 – 80 degrees Celsius.
- Innofil EPR InnoPETAs I wrote in the PET-section, I like printing with InnoPET instead of PLA. Manufacturer Innofil3D recently released a new version called EPR InnoPET and positions it between ABS and PLA. It’s temperature range is wide between 210 – 230 degrees Celsius. It can be used without a heated bed (with painter’s tape for better adhesion), making it compatible with many PLA-only 3D Printers. It can be printed faster than PLA and is better for printing watertight objects.
How to choose the right Filament
After reading the above it becomes clear that there are is a list of characteristics to consider when choosing filament and that ABS and PLA offer quite the opposite. There are a few more things to mind when choosing filament, so here’s an overview:
- The melting temperature of the plastic, so you know if your extruder can reach this temperature.
- The glass temperature of the plastic, so you know if it’s suitable for the ambient temperature of your purpose.
- The printing environment, so you can determine if the smell and chemical fumes are a problem.
- The requirements for a heated bed to prevent warping.
- The stiffness or flexibility of the plastic, so you know what forces it can withstand.
- The advised print speed of the filament: some have to be printed extremely slow for good results.
- The possibilities of finishing prints. Some materials can be sanded, polished, vapor-smoothed, painted or finished otherwise to get interesting results, some don’t.
- The availability of the color you require: ABS and PLA are available in almost every color, but other plastics that I’ll cover next might have a more limited range. Some materials even offer special effects, like glitters, glow-in-the-dark or color changes by heat or light.
- The compatibility between a material and your 3D Printer and Extruder Type. Read both your printer’s manual and warranty conditions before experimenting with materials. Some materials can seriously damage certain extruders and because of this printer manufacturers won’t even allow the use of different filament brands other then those they’re selling. What’s also important is to check which filament diameter your printer supports: most printers use 1.75 mm filament but some (like the Ultimakers) use 2.85 mm filament, which is sometimes referred to as “3 mm”.
- The size of the spool. Every printer has it’s own way of suspending the filament spool while printing and can usually accommodate a wide range of spool sizes. However, some vendors design their printers so they can only hold their own filament. MakerBot has done this with it’s latest 5th generation line of printers (which I reviewed here) which can only hold their own very wide and flat spools. Some printers even use dedicated cartridges instead of spools, so you can only use their brand, comparable to 2D printers. There are also FFF 3D Printers in development that don’t use spooled filament altogether, but instead use pelletized filament, but at this moment most used spools.
- The price. More on that in the next paragraph.
Filament Prices &
the Differences between Premium and “Non-Premium”
You can imagine that special kinds of filament are more expensive than regular ones. And even that filament with special colors or effects come at a higher price. But when exploring what and where to buy you’re filament, you’ll quickly discover that prices of standard-colored filament – let’s say Red PLA – can range between €10 and €50 per kg. Some part of that is pure marketing: they’re more expensive because you also pay for the brand, like you do with clothing. But another part is quality: really cheap filament is sometimes made from less quality source material and is usually less well checked for consistency.
“Premium filament” usually (not always!) costs between €25 and €50 per kilogram, but comes from better suppliers that offer better quality checking in the production process. The most important factor in this is the filament diameter. If a 3D printer is designed for 1.75 mm filament, it needs to be very close to that measurement: too wide filament could jam the extruder and too narrow filament could lead to extruder gears losing grip and extruding inconstantly, resulting in lower-quality prints.
In the current market it’s hard to say for sure which filaments are “premium”, but those that are usually have their own brand name – or are certified by 3D printer manufacturers – and are made by a traceable manufacturer that supplies all kind of characteristics of the plastic on their website.
I won’t go into the pricing of the filaments I’ll cover below, because they may vary over time and can depend on your currency and location. Just make sure that when you check the weight when you compare prices: spools usually contain either 0.75 kg or 1 kg of filament, but MakerBot’s “Large” Spools for instance, contain 0.9 kg. You might also find very big spools of 2+ kg, but keep in mind that they could be either to large for your spool holder, or too heavy for your extruder motor to unroll. Very big spools can best be put on a separate spool holder with some kind of bearing system. You can easily 3D print one yourself by downloading one of the many custom spool holder models on Thingiverse.