The Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing Materials

How Do You Choose The Right 3D Printing Material?

Material selection, undoubtedly, is a critical decision when producing with additive manufacturing.  There are general use thermoplastics, engineering-grade thermoplastics, composites,and ultra-performance materials with an ever-more expansive selection of new 3D printing materials being released every day.  As new materials continually enter the market, new applications and use-cases are also being discovered and utilized in tandem.  Each filament has different mechanical, thermal and chemical properties, making some better suited for an application over another.  To help sort through this wide selection, ZABFAB has compiled a 3D printing materials comparison guide to some of the most popular and high-performance 3D printing materials to illustrate the properties that each material offers and some of the applications that they are most suitable to be used for.

This 3D printing material guide covers:

Thermoplastics

Poly-Lactic Acid (PLA)

PLA is a great all-purpose general use 3D printing material.  It possesses high strength and there are many color selections from a wide range of manufacturers.  Typical applications for PLA include concept modelling and prototyping, where cost and speed are critical criteria.  ZABFAB offers a variety of PLA options here.

Support Filament

Support filament filaments include HIPS or PVA.  PVA is soluble in water and HIPS is soluble in Limonene solution. Dissolvable support is great for prints with hard to reach features as it provides excellent preservation of surface features.

Resin

High Detail

Photopolymerization can create parts with intricate detail, which are great for models and components requiring very fine resolution or casting patterns.

Engineering

There are a variety of engineering grade resin materials that are tough, strong, flexible, and temperature resistant.

Dental

Dental resins are great for making personalized dental products based on the exact feature definitions of the patient. Dentures, retainers, surgical guides and models can all be made with 3D printable dental resin.

Medical

Medical resin provides excellent biocompatibility, sterilizability, and durability for a wide range of medical products.

Engineering Grade Thermoplastics

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

ABS is a great all-purpose 3D printing material that boosts good durability, strength,and heat resistance, while remaining very affordable. Its good mechanical properties make it an excellent choice for functional prototyping.  ZABFAB offers a variety of ABS options here.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETG)

PETG is similar to ABS, in that it possesses high durability, strength and heat resistance.  Generally, PETG has a slightly higher tensile strength, while ABS has higher durability and heat resistance.  Another benefit to PETG is that it is less prone to warping, therefore, able to more easily hold its dimensions.  All considered, PETG is a great low-cost option.

Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate (ASA)

Very similar to ABS, ASA’s signature feature is its UV resistance; in addition to good chemical and water resistance.  ASA is a perfect 3D printing material for any type of outdoor application that will be directly exposed to the elements.  Find out more about ZABFAB’s ASA filament here.

Polypropylene

Polypropylene (PP) has great toughness, fatigue resistance, chemical resistance, and electrical resistance.  Electrical resistance makes PP a great insulator and its chemical resistance allows it to act as a container for a variety of bases and acids.  Because of these unique properties, PP is great for packaging and storage applications.

Flexible Filament

There are many options for flexible filaments including Thermoplastic Elastomers (TPE), Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU), and Polyester Copolyamide Thermoplastic Elastomer (PCTPE).  Flexible filament boosts qualities such as impact& vibration resistance, non-slip characteristics, and flexibility. Used in dampeners, non-slip feet, phone cases, and the like, flexible filament deforms and compresses easily as it encounters loads, making it incredibly durable.  The main differences are that TPE is softer,while TPU is firmer, and PCTPE is a TPE-nylon alloy that possess the flexibility of TPE with the rugged toughness of nylon.  Filament flexibility is measured on the shore hardness scale, you can find out more about the mechanical properties of flexible 3D printing materials here.  Brand name manufacturers of flexible filament include Hytrel® 3D41000FL , NinjaTek, and Stratasys.

Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) Safe

source: 3DXTech

ESD safe materials can be created with a variety of base materials combined with multi-wall carbon nano-tube technology which gives the material great electrostatic discharge protection.  ESD safe materials are great for electrical products and industrial jigs and fixtures for electronic component assembly. Brand name manufacturers of ESD-safe materials include 3DX Tech and Stratasys

Polycarbonate

Polycarbonates used in engineering are strong and durable with a high impact and heat resistance. Polycarbonate can undergo large plastic deformations without cracking or breaking enabling them to be easily worked, molded, and thermo-formed.  Because of these properties, polycarbonates find many applications in the automotive, aerospace and medical industries. Brand name manufacturers include Polymaker, 3DXTech, Stratasys, Ultimaker, and Matterhackers.

Nylon

Nylon offers excellent durability, strength and heat resistance with good stiffness.  Nylon offers high inter-layer adhesion, low friction and high melt temperatures.  Because of nylon’s excellent durability, strength and heat resistance, it is great for applications in the aerospace, defense,automotive, medical and consumer products industries.  Brand name manufacturers include DSM Novamid® ID1030, DuPont Zytel® 3D1000FL, Matterhackers, and Taulman.

Alloys

Alloy materials provide the opportunity to combine the capabilities of many different high-performance 3D printing materials.  Some examples include: PC/ABS, which combines the strength and heat resistance of PC with the flexibility of ABS, PC/ASA which combines all of the excellent mechanical and thermal properties of PC with the weather and UV resistance of ASA. Brand name manufacturers include 3DXTech, Taulman,and Stratasys.

Flame Resistant

Using typical 3D printing materials such as ABS, PETG, PC and TPU, chemical properties can be altered to create flame retardant material, which is excellent for applications that encounter high heat.  These filaments offer all the advantages of the regular grades plus the added benefit of higher heat resistance and flammability resistance.  Brand name manufacturers are: Clariant, which offers Flame retardant PA6/66 using Exolit® 20% glass fibers and 3DXTech which offers Firewire ABS, TPU, and PC filaments.

Composites

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber reinforced composite filaments offer a level of strength, durability and stiffness that regular thermoplastic cannot offer.  Carbon fiber filaments are available with many base materials including PETG, ABS, Nylon, PLA, PC, PEEK,and Ultem.  ZABFAB is one of the few manufacturers that offers high quality premium composite 3D printed products here. Brand name manufacturers include: DSM, which offers Novamid® ID1030 CF10, Matterhackers NylonX, 3DXTech CarbonX, Markforged, and Stratasys.

Fiberglass

Glass fiber reinforced composite parts offer an excellent level of impact resistance and durability, along with excellent heat, chemical, and UV resistance.  Fiberglass parts can take high energy impacts and still maintain their dimensional stability.  ZABFAB is one of the few companies that offers high quality fiberglass composite products here.  Brand name manufacturers include: XSTRAND™ GF-30 PP and XSTRAND™ GF-30 PA6, Matterhacker’s NylonG, MAX-G from 3DXTech, PP GF30 and PET CF from BASF, and Flame retardant PA6/66 with 20% glass fibers from Clariant.

Ultra-Performance Materials

PEEK/PEKK

One of the best known polymers, the
Polyether ether ketone (PEEK) family of thermoplastics, exhibit exceptional thermal, chemical, and mechanical properties.

ULTEM

Ultem is an amorphous, high-performance polymer that combines excellent thermal properties, exceptional dimensional stability, inherent flame resistance, and good chemical resistance.  Brand name manufacturers include Stratasys and 3DXTech.

Metal

Aluminum

Aluminum is the most widespread metal on earth, making up approximately 8% of the earth’s crust. It is ductile, lightweight, durable, and corrosion resistant. As a result, it is widely used in the aerospace and automobile industries.

Steel

Steel is an alloy of iron and carbon and is one of the most widely used metals in the world due to its superior strength and ductility. Bridges, buildings, railway tracks, cars, engines, and airplanes are among some of the applications of steel.

Titanium

Titanium combines the low density of aluminum with the high strength of steel. Although it costs more than steel and aluminum, its high strength-to-weight ratio makes it very useful for applications in the aerospace, consumer products, and medical industries.

Brass

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that provides high malleability, durability, and low friction, making a great choice for applications that require interlocking mechanisms such as gears and locks. It is easy to machine, form and has a relatively low melting temperature for casting and laser sintering operations. Other applications include electrical terminals, bearings, nuts, bolts, jewelry, heat exchangers, and many others.

Copper

Copper is a soft malleable and ductile material with high thermal and electrical conductivity. Common applications are for conducting heat or electricity such as wiring and electrical terminals.

Cobalt

Cobalt is a hard, high strength, corrosion resistant metal. Applications include lithium ion batteries, magnets and others requiring high strength at high temperatures.

Inconel

Inconel is an oxidation-corrosion and heat resistant metal making it well suited for extreme environments with high pressure and high heat. Applications include rockets, airplanes, turbines, seals, and blades.

Construction Materials

Concrete

Concrete 3D printing involves mixing a vat of concrete with a variety of additives to optimize it for 3D printing. Fibers, superplasticizers (to reduce the amount of water) and others are among the additives used. A robotic arm or a large gantry system is typically used to make large structures such as bridges and homes, which could potentially lead to many affordable housing solutions.

Metal

Metal construction materials are created through a directed energy deposition (DED) method whereby a powder stream or wire is fed into the path of a high-powered laser, which melts the metal feed material. This method has been used to create a variety of intricate architectural structures.

Organic

3D printing with organic materials, also known as bioprinting, is the creation of living tissue in a layer-by-layer fashion.  To begin the process, stem cells are obtained from the patient and are then mixed into a solution that contains cells, matrix and nutrients.  The matrix can be thought of as a “glue” that holds all the cells together once they are printed and as they develop.  Bioprinting is still in its infancy, but some of its potential applications include printing bones, skin, blood vessels, organs, and cartilage.

Ceramic

3D printed ceramics are printed using a mixture of silica and 3D printing additives such as polymers to aid in the printability of the material.  After the part is printed, it is fired in a kiln and the 3D printing additives are burnt out.

Sandstone

Sandstone 3D printing is ideal for objects and models requiring multiple intricate colors. Sandstone products are delicate and brittle and are not good for applications that will be frequently handled. The process is a binder jetting process, whereby a binding agent and color jet are added across a powder bed of sandstone, layer by layer.

Food

Even food is starting to be 3D printed.  Chocolates, pizza, eggs, and many more.  The allure of 3D printing food is being able to open new artistic ways of designing and presenting food.  The main downside of 3D printing food is that it takes a long time to print, which could make it prohibitive for restaurant adoption.

Making The Final Material Selection Decision

It is important to weigh all the capabilities that each material offers when conducting a 3D printing materials comparison, whether it be a thermoplastic, engineering grade material, or a high-performance composite.  For more information on material properties, check out ZABFAB’s material properties guide to learn more about the technical capabilities of 3D printing material and determine which material is best for your project.

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