The internet has been buzzing about 3D printing for years. You’ve probably seen the brightly colored boat figurines and other nifty ideas made real and have wondered what these were actually made of. The spools of material don’t exactly give many hints about their composition to someone who hasn’t been interested in the hobby for long, so here’s a quick overview of the most common printing materials and their properties to get you started.
Materials Need: A Beginner’s Guide to 3D Printing Materials
The principle behind all of the materials regardless of their composition is very similar – they contain some kind of polymer or resin which melts at a certain high temperature and can then be reshaped into whatever object the printer is capable of printing. There already are quite a lot of material types with more blends constantly being added. Here are the most common ones and some of their properties.
PLA or polylactic acid is one of the most widespread and the material of choice for beginners. There’s a lot going for PLA – it is a completely natural substance usually derived from corn starch, meaning that it’s easy to produce, eco-friendly and biodegradable. It starts melting at temperatures as low as 180° Celsius, so you don’t need to have a powerful hot end to play around with it. The material is cheap and readily available, plus it sticks well to itself and to most surfaces so a heat bed, although preferred, isn’t needed when working with it.
Since it is organic, PLA can start to decompose after a while. Other shortcomings include brittleness and a tendency to warp if exposed to a lot of heat, but these are overshadowed by its accessibility and the fact that virtually all 3D printers support it.
ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is another popular material option that needs a higher temperature to melt, but also cools rapidly, creating a resistant plastic that’s much less brittle than PLA, can withstand more pressure, and won’t warp as easily once its final shape is decided. The substance is resistant to chemicals and water, making it great as material for cups, utensils and other items that directly come into contact with food.
You’ll need a 3D printer with a heated bed to make items out of ABS properly as the print may warp if fresh layers come into contact with completely solid ones. The smell released during printing isn’t pleasant either, and printing in a well-ventilated area is a necessary precaution.
PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified) seeks to combine the strengths of both PLA and ABS into a single material, and does so fairly well. It is almost as tough and heat resistant as the latter, and doesn’t require a heated bed to print. It is food safe and handles impacts well. Printing PETG is a slow process though, and it is generally more expensive than either of the materials mentioned above.
Wood and metal filaments
Wood and metal filaments are called that because of the powdered particles of wood and various metals like iron, brass or copper they contain respectively. These are mixed with standard PLA and combined with the addition of polymers, which creates a substance that mostly acts like PLA for printing purposes, but have the look and feel of the added substance.
While they’re supported by most 3D printers capable of printing PLA, these materials require you to make specific adjustments to its temperature settings, and are considerably more expensive than ordinary PLA.
Nylon is a fairly recent addition as a 3D printing material, but has already gained many fans because of its remarkable strength, cheap price and widespread availability. Items created with nylon are perfectly safe, support weight well and retain their form due to their high melting temperature. The same makes them harder to use in 3D printing as the 250° Celsius required isn’t attainable by many models.
This is already a lot to take in and many interesting materials or variants of the ones mentioned like glow-in-the-dark PLA, carbon fiber and flexible filament haven’t even been touched upon. It is recommended that you start with PLA or ABS since they’re the most user friendly, and can then discover what it’s like to work with the others once you’re more experienced.