What is 3D printer filament
Before we get into 3D materials, it helps to look at the 2D printing process we’ve all come to know. All printers need some kind of substance to print with. For 2D printing, we’re most familiar with inkjet printers that use liquid inks.
These machines extrude ink through microscopic nozzles onto papers. 2D laser printers also print to papers.
Instead of ink, they use a toner cartridge crammed with a special kind of fine powder and a heated fuser.
2D printing produces two-dimensional, flat, results that have width and height but no depth (thickness). Pigment-based and solid inks are other materials used for printing in 2D. Today, we can also print in 3D with special machines and printing materials.
3D Filament Defined
3D filaments are special types of plastics known as thermoplastics. Once heated to the right temperature, thermoplastics become flexible. It’s this flexibility that allows the printer to sculpt the filament to create your shapes before it cools down. In 2017, the two common types of 3D filaments are:
- ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
- PLA (Polylactic Acid)
These are not the only 3D filaments available. We have as many as 16 3D filaments but we’re going to look into a few of them later on.
The Dynamic Duo: ABS and PLA
By far, the most common filament types are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Most basic 3D printers are designed to solely use these filaments. Part of their appeal is that they’re relatively inexpensive, costing as little as $20 per kilogram.
Don’t be put off by ABS’s unwieldy chemical name; it’s the same plastic used in Legos. Objects printed with ABS are tough, durable, and nontoxic. It has a relatively high melting point, with a print temperature starting from 210 degrees to 250 degrees Celsius.
The bottom corners of objects being printed with ABS tend to curl upward a bit, especially if you are using a non-heated print bed. During printing, ABS can emit an acrid, unpleasant odor, so it’s best used with a closed-frame printer in a well-ventilated room.
PLA has a relatively low melting point, with usable temperatures between 180 degrees and 230 degrees Celsius. It is plant-based and biodegradable.
It’s harder than ABS, prints without warping, and is generally easy to work with, although in rare cases it can cause extruder jams. PLA is often used as the base material for more exotic, composite materials, which we will discuss in a bit.
How to Choose the Right Filament
After you pick a 3D printer, the first decision you’ll have to make is what type of filament you want to use. There are several dozen varieties—even setting aside the numerous colors they come in. Wading through them surfaces a string of chemical-sounding names: polylactic acid, polyvinyl alcohol, carbon fiber, and the tongue-twisty thermoplastic elastomers.
For example, they have a dizzying variety of acronyms, ABS, PLA, HIPS, CPE, PET, PETT, TPE, PVA, and PCTPE among them. But don’t be dismayed by this alphabet soup.
Only a few types are in common use, and manufacturers tend to eschew overly geeky monikers in favor of more descriptive names alluding to an essential quality of the filament such as flexibility (NinjaTek’s Ninjaflex and Polymaker’s Polyflex, for instance) and durability (Makerbot, XYZprinting, and Ultimaker all market filaments called Tough PLA).
Manufacturing of 3D Filament
Filaments used in 3D printing are thermoplastics, which are plastics (aka polymers) that melt rather than burn when heated, can be shaped and molded, and solidify when cooled.
The filament is fed into a heating chamber in the printer’s extruder assembly, where it is heated to its melting point and then extruded (squirted) through a metal nozzle as the extruder assembly moves, tracing a path programmed into a 3D object file to create, layer by layer, the printed object.
Although most 3D printers have a single extruder, some dual-extruder models can print an object in different colors or with different filament types.
The technique of printing with plastic filament is called either fused filament fabrication (FFF) or fused deposition modeling (FDM). They’re the same thing; the FDM acronym is trademarked by 3D printing pioneer Stratasys Corp.
So other manufacturers created their names to describe their printers’ technology; FFF is the one that caught on. Even today, except in some manufacturers’ brochures, you’ll see the names used interchangeably.
The filament is sold in spools by weight ranging from 0.5 kilograms to 2 kilograms. The filament comes in two thicknesses, 1.75 millimeters, and 3 millimeters.
(The latter is, in reality, a little thinner, about 2.85 millimeters.) The vast majority of filament is of the 1.75-millimeter type; Ultimaker and LulzBot are among the few manufacturers whose printers use the thicker size. Weight is almost always listed in metric units.
Now, let’s take a look at a few of the more popular and important filament types that we have
Types of 3D Filament
- ABS Filament
- PLA Filament
- PET Filament
- PETT Filament
- Nylon Filament
- PVA Filament
For each material, we’ll start with a short introduction followed by the print temperature, and applications. At the end of each 3D material, we’ll list its pros and cons. Also worth noting is that not all 3D printers can utilize both ABS and PLA. Some can, but not all, so you need to know your 3D printer capabilities as well as the abilities of the 3D filaments.
1. ABS 3D Filament
ABS is popular for a lot of good reasons. It’s tough and has impact-resistant properties. It’s this strength and moderate flexibility that makes it such a great choice for printing in 3D. It’s also easy to extrude from the printer’s nozzles, which makes it an easy material to work with.
ABS print temperature range: 210°C – 250°C (high)
ABS is a great choice for printing plastic automotive parts, moving parts, musical instruments, kitchen appliances, electronic housings, and various toys, like LEGO. It has other applications too, apart from 3D printing. For example, traditional manufacturers use ABS to make plastic wrap, water bottles, and cups, to name a few uses. Despite its popularity for 3D printing, ABS is not the best filament for most home users.
This is because it has a high melting point that needs to print on a heated surface or bed. A heated printer bed is not something a lot of budget-range 3D printers come equipped with. Printing with ABS also produces unpleasant fumes that can irritate some people.
- it’s flexible and lightweight
- Most preferred material among professional 3D printers and keen armatures
- A reliable, strong 3D filament
- it’s Needs a high temperature to reach its melting point
- Emits unpleasant fumes, most notable in poorly ventilated spaces
- ABS is petroleum-based, so making it a non-biodegradable material
2. PLA 3D Filament
PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) is popular for amateurs and professionals alike. It’s a special type of thermoplastic made from organic materials, namely cornstarch and sugarcane.
The main benefits of PLA are that it’s safer and easier to use, and with no toxic fumes to worry about. Some users even find the sweet smell of the sugar-based filament pleasant.
Compared to ABS, PLA produces 3D parts which are more aesthetically pleasing. This finish is thanks to its unique sheen and smooth appearance.
PLA print temperature range: 180°C – 230°C (low)
Application of PLA 3D Filament
PLA has wide-ranging uses. At the professional level, PLA filament uses include medical suturing (stitching). We can also see PLA used for various surgical implants, including surgically implanted pins, rods, screws, and mesh. The applications work thanks to the material’s degradable properties. All the aforementioned 3D printed parts break down in the human body.
They can take anywhere between six months to two years, depending on the part and its purpose. At the amateur level, PLA filament is great for producing a whole range of consumer items. Other benefits of PLA are that it prints faster than ABS, and there’s no need for a heated printer bed. The end products are usually decent strong and durable.
Apart from 3D printing, other products that use PLA include food packaging, disposable tableware, and diapers.
- Compared to ABS filament, PLA is less prone to warping
- No toxic fumes produce a sweet aroma when heated
- Available in unique effects like glow-in-the-dark colors and translucency
- Can attract moisture that makes it potentially fragile and more difficult to print
- Less sturdy overall than ABS filament
- Susceptible to sealing the printer nozzle
3. PET Filament
Today, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) is a popular 3D material. Another common use of PET is in everyday plastic bottles. This plastic is both stable and harmless, emits no unpleasant or harmful odors, and is 100% recyclable. In its raw state, the filament has no color and is crystal clear.
Once exposed to cold or heat the material quickly changes to a non-transparent state. A more advanced version if PET is a filament called PETG, also marketed as Amphora AM1800.
PETG print temperature range: 210°C – 230°C ( low)
Application of PET Filament
PET is on a list of FDA approved polymers. This makes it completely ‘food safe’, meaning it’s safe for products like cups, and plates, etc. Needless to say, common applications for PET filament include food containers and various kitchen utensils.
- Prices for PET filament are now falling which is getting cheaper
- Does not absorb any liquid precipitation from the air
- Does not warp
- Not an easy material for learners to work with
- Nozzle and printer bed temperatures needs fine-tuning for best results
4. PETT Filament
PETT, whose long name is PolyEthylene Trimethylene Terephthalate, is what’s known as a T-Glass filament. Like PET (one ‘T’), it’s also a popular 3D printer material that’s food-friendly. The filament is non-biodegradable, though it is a recyclable material.
PETT Print Temperature Range: 210°C – 230°C (low)
Applications of PETT Filament:
PETT is another of those FDA-approved polymers. This makes it safe for use with food. The majority of PETT applications are various food containers and other kitchen utensils.
- The prices for PETT are also falling they’re getting cheap
- Strong and flexible
- Does not warp or shrink during the printing process
- The printer nozzle bed temperature requires fine-tuning for best results
- Also, a difficult material for armatures to work with
5. Nylon Filament
Nylon filament, also called polyamide, is another popular choice. This is a synthetic polymer that’s stronger and more durable than ABS and PLA—and cost-effective. It’s also flexible, light, wear-resistant, and less brittle than both ABS and PLA. There are different kinds of nylon filament available, and what you choose will depend on which one suits your budget and needs.
Nylon print temperature range: 210°C – 250°C (high)
Application of Nylon Filament
Nylon filament is great to use in a whole variety of applications thanks to its strength, flexible properties, and durability. It’s particularly suited for various consumer products, tools, mechanical components, machine parts, structural parts, containers, and much more.
- 100% thermoplastic material
- Strong, durable and flexible
- Less brittle than ABS and PLA
- Absorbs liquid moisture easily—proper storage is essential
- Needs a high melting temperature
- Breaks down and create unpleasant fumes when heated
6. PVA Filament
PVA (long name Polyvinyl alcohol) is a good 3D filament that’s typical use is as a support material when printing with ABS or PLA. Support materials are necessary when printing 3D parts with notable overhangs. Without support, these parts would be impossible to print or perfect.
As a support material, PVA works best with printers that have dual extruders. This is a biodegradable, non-toxic material that easily dissolves in tap water. For the best results of the material, the print bed temperature should not exceed 200 °C.
Application of PVA Filament
In 3D printing, PVA works as a support material (see above). Aside from 3D printing, PVA has many other applications. We can find it used as a thickener in paper adhesives, in personal hygiene products, as a mold-release agent, kid’s putty, and freshwater fishing products, to name a few.
- A biodegradable, non-toxic material
- Good durability
- Very costly compared to other 3D filaments
- Can be difficult to source compared to other materials
- Attracts water easily
There is no such thing as the best 3D filament, it all depends on what you intend to use it for.
Although the ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic Acid) are the two most commonly use 3D filament due to their strength and lightweight properties
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