Share This Post
If you want to create high-quality, professional-looking prints, it’s essential to choose the right material for your project. You should find something that meets your needs in terms of durability, flexibility, aesthetics, and cost.
There are a wide variety of plastics and resins popular for both personal and professional setups. Choose from materials like PLA and ABS to wood and metal composites. Commercial and industrial sectors may print with more exotic materials, including clay, concrete, and even edible ingredients.
Learn more about some of the most common 3D printing materials for FDM, SLA, and SLS 3D printers in this article. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of everything from popular plastics to extrudable chocolate.
Table of Contents
Types Of 3D Printing Materials
You can find a wide range of different 3D printing materials to use for various personal and professional applications. While small-scale setups usually stick to plastics and resins, you may see materials such as clay, concrete, or even edible ingredients used for industrial applications.
Most hobbyists and home professionals use plastic when 3D printing. It’s affordable, widely available, and comes in an almost endless variety of styles and colours. You can choose from several different types of plastic that vary in areas such as durability, flexibility, and temperature sensitivity.
One of the most popular thermoplastics for home printing is Polylactic acid, also known as PLA. It makes a good choice for beginners as it’s easy to print and works with most pre-built or kit setups.
PLA has a relatively low printing temperature, meaning you don’t need to invest in an expensive machine with a heated bed. What’s more, PLA is food-safe and doesn’t emit toxic fumes during printing. It’s even biodegradable under the right conditions.
Unfortunately, as with any material, PLA doesn’t come without its downsides. PLA isn’t the most durable choice for 3D printing, especially compared to similar materials such as PETG or ABS. You shouldn’t use it for anything that needs to withstand bending, twisting, or high-impact force.
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, also known as ABS, is another popular plastic in both home and commercial applications. Most household plastics contain ABS, particularly items that require strength and flexibility.
ABS is much more durable than PLA and can resist temperature, pressure, impact force, and more. It makes a good material for projects that must withstand regular wear and tear like toys, electronics cases, tools, and more.
It can be more of a challenge to print with ABS than with plastic such as PLA. It boasts a fairly high melting temperature and may warp without a heated bed and an enclosed frame. ABS also releases harsh, toxic fumes during printing and requires a well-ventilated space.
Polyethylene Terephthalate, also known as PET, is found in single-use plastics such as those in water bottles. It is thin, brittle, and breaks down quickly with regular use. However, if you replace the ethylene glycol with CHDM (cyclohexanedimethanol), you get a significantly stronger material known as PETG.
Some 3D printer enthusiasts use PETG thanks to its durability, longevity, and high resolution. The material is sturdy and weather-resistant, making it a good choice for items such as outdoor fixtures. It’s also food-safe so that you can use it for prints such as dinnerware and pantry storage. Perhaps most importantly, PETG is less finicky than ABS without sacrificing strength, making it a good choice for beginners.
The main drawback of PETG is that it has poor bridging properties when printing. It is also less cost-effective than cheaper plastics such as PLA and comes in fewer colors and styles.
It’s important to note that PETG is a hygroscopic material, meaning it readily absorbs moisture from the environment around it. You must store PETG in a sealed, airtight container for longer shelf life.
High impact polystyrene, also known as HIPS, blends together polystyrene plastic with polybutadiene rubber for a sturdy yet flexible material. It dissolves in a substrate called D-Limonene, making it a popular choice for use in scaffolding.
Using removable scaffolds allows you to print complex or uneven shapes without interruption. Most scaffolding materials require manual removal, which can leave unsightly scars on your print. With a dissolvable material such as HIPS, you can easily remove the scaffolding portion of a print without affecting the model itself.
You can also use HIPS for lightweight prints, as long as you don’t plan on exposing them to limonene. HIPS is both light and sturdy, thanks to its rubber component. It can withstand a relatively high impact force, making it a good choice for everyday items. HIPS is also flexible and food-safe.
Polyvinyl alcohol, also known as PVA, is another popular scaffolding material. However, it dissolves in water instead of limonene, often making PVA a poor choice for a complete print.
PVA is weak and will break down quickly if left to the elements. However, it’s durable enough for short-term scaffolding use in 3D printing. You can also find PVA in household products such as dishwasher detergent pods or certain bath toys.
Acrylic Styrene Acrylonitrile, or ASA, is a plastic often reserved for commercial applications. It’s much more expensive than similar materials and releases toxic fumes while printing. It also requires high extruder temperatures, which can be dangerous for home use.
ASA is most widely used for outdoor parts, thanks to its durability and longevity. It’s one of the few types of plastics resistant to UV rays. ASA is also strong, somewhat flexible, and impact-resistant.
Thermoplastic polyurethane is more commonly known as TPU and features in many commercial 3D printing applications. It’s much more flexible than other types of plastic, with an almost rubbery, elastic feel. TPU is also strong and highly impact resistant. You can find it in items such as electronics cases, toys, streetwear, and more.
Most 3D printing hobbyists avoid TPU due to its high price. The material also has a short shelf life and can be challenging to store properly. However, many industries turn to TPU as a flexible, durable, and eco-friendly 3D printing solution.
Also known as polyamide (PA), nylon is a tough synthetic polymer widely used in the textile industry. You can also find nylon filament designed for printing sturdy parts such as tools or mechanical components.
Nylon is durable, temperature-resistant, and flexible enough to withstand tensile pressure. Unlike plastics such as ABS, you can polish the surface of nylon prints to a smooth, attractive texture. Thanks to its strength and aesthetic appeal, nylon 3D printing is used commercially in industries ranging from mechanical engineering to visual arts.
Beginners looking for a relatively forgiving material may want to avoid nylon, as it can be difficult to work with. It won’t print nearly as easily as more popular plastics such as PLA or PETG, as it needs a high-temperature nozzle and a heated bed. Nylon filament is used most widely in industrial and commercial applications.
Polycarbonate is sometimes referred to as PC and is a popular choice for transparent 3D printing in commercial and industrial settings. Polycarbonate is sturdy, durable, and temperature-resistant at high heat. The material is also relatively flexible and can handle stress, making it suitable for construction applications.
Most home 3D printing enthusiasts steer clear of polycarbonate due to the difficulty of proper storage. Like PETG, the material is hygroscopic and prone to absorbing moisture. It can deteriorate quickly without an airtight seal. It also requires dangerously high extruder temperatures to operate.
Resin, also known as photopolymer, is a light-activated liquid material that you can use to 3D print high-resolution models. When resin gets exposed to UV light, it cures and solidifies. You can quickly and accurately print 3D designs in various shapes and sizes, though the process is more complicated and costly than printing with plastic filament.
Standard resin is a versatile choice that works well for most prints, whether you’re designing home decor or children’s action figures. However, for specialty applications, you may want to use specialized resins offering benefits such as faster curing, higher resolution, or transparency.
Also known as draft resin, you can use rapid resin when you want to print a part quickly. Rapid resins cure at a faster rate than traditional resin, preventing issues such as shrinking and warping. Draft resin is ideal for high-precision work and fine details. Rapid resins may not be as strong as other types of material.
Resin designed for durability is ideal for printing parts designed for operating under stress. Machine parts, safety equipment, protective cases, and more often use tough resin instead of traditional varieties. However, durable resin varieties may take longer to cure and can be prone to warping.
Rigid resin resists bending without cracking or snapping. It’s a good material choice for support structures and load-bearing parts. Rigid resin is often used in industrial and engineering applications, though home enthusiasts may use it for stress-resistant prints. Rigid resin can take longer to cure than standard varieties.
If you want to print a see-through part, transparent resin offers a semi-transparent appearance. Post-processing allows you to polish transparent resins to look like glass or crystal. Transparent resin is a popular choice due to its attractive aesthetics, but it isn’t always as durable or fast-curing as other types of resin.
Polyurethane resin is highly durable, thanks to its weather-resistant properties. It’s resistant to high temperatures, humidity, and UV light, making it a good choice for outdoor prints. Polyurethane resin can be expensive and often gets used in industrial applications such as automotive or aerospace engineering.
Flexible resin is similar to TPU in that it offers both durability and flexibility in prints. If your part requires some degree of elasticity, flexible resin often makes a better choice than more rigid varieties. Keep in mind that flexible resin may be less durable than other options and often has a shorter shelf life.
If you’re printing parts for electronics, you need to use an ESD-safe material. You can find specialized ESD resin that allows you to print specialized parts for use in electronics manufacturing. However, ESD resin often comes at a higher price point than most home hobbyists are willing to pay. It’s used mainly in industrial and commercial settings.
Composite 3D printing materials combine plastic filament with other particles to create filaments with unique aesthetic and functional properties. There are a wide variety of composites to choose from depending on the strength, durability, and look you want for your piece.
When you see 3D printed models that appear made of wood, they most often contain a composite designed to look and feel like real lumber. Wood filament includes a plastic such as PLA combined with small particles of wood fiber, often bound with a polymer glue for added strength.
You can find wood 3D printing filament in a variety of styles and colors that mimic popular woods such as bamboo, oak, cherry, and more. While the added wood gives prints a unique aesthetic appeal, wood fibers also reduce the integrity of plastic filament. Models will be fairly weak and brittle. The abrasive wood particles may also wear down your extruder more quickly than expected.
When printing with wood composite, it’s best to keep temperatures low. High heat can burn wood particles inside the plastic, leading to a darker color and a tacky appearance.
You can usually only find true metal 3D printers in commercial and manufacturing environments instead of small-scale setups. Most home printers use metal composite filament instead to create prints with metallic properties. Metal composite filament works with most small-scale FDM printing setups, though it can wear out parts such as the extruder more quickly.
Metal composites contain plastic such as PLA mixed with metal particles. You can find filaments that mimic a variety of metals, from gold and copper to steel and iron. The metal particles not only give filament color and sheen, but also weight. Models built with metal composite will have a fairly realistic weight, though the material may be slightly lighter than their genuine counterparts.
Metal composite usually requires heavy-handed post-processing to achieve a realistic look. It isn’t as strong as real metal, so you won’t usually see it in parts such as tools or machine components. Instead, most people use metal composite for decorative or prototyping applications.
Combining plastic filament with carbon materials such as graphene gives you a composite 3D printing material that can conduct electricity. You can 3D print circuitry that will work without any wires or cables.
Conductive filaments can be challenging to print with, especially for beginners. Layers do not typically stick well together and may be weak, brittle, or easily damaged. You should also keep in mind that most conductive composite filaments can only handle low voltages safely.
Carbon Fiber Filament
Carbon fiber, also known as graphite fiber, is a notoriously strong material frequently used in heavy industrial and military applications. It contains polymers of rigid carbon atoms that are highly resistant to breakage.
Carbon fiber composite combines carbon fiber with durable plastics such as nylon. It’s rigid yet flexible and durable enough to withstand both stress and impact force. What’s more, carbon fiber composite is much lighter than other similarly robust materials.
Carbon fiber is a good choice for construction applications and structural prints. It also works well as a component of safety gear or protective casings. However, it can be pricey to print with carbon fiber composite. The material is also rough on your printer and can wear down the extruder nozzle quickly.
Clay is a flexible, malleable material ideal for 3D printing applications. However, you won’t find many home printers equipped to deal with clay filament. You see most clay 3D printers in the commercial and industrial sector, often to mass-produce ceramics.
Clay filament combines fine clay particles with water to thin them to a suitable consistency for extrusion. In some cases, additional chemicals and minerals improve features such as color, viscosity, and temperature sensitivity. A kiln uses heat to solidify printed layers, while glazing provides a clean and glossy finish.
You can produce an almost endless variety of ceramics using clay 3D printing. Traditional bone china, porcelain, stoneware, and even terracotta clay will all work with an appropriate 3D printer.
While most home 3D printers can’t handle concrete, sectors such as the construction industry are quickly embracing the concept of 3D concrete printing. Large-scale 3D printers can quickly mass-produce features such as foundations, walls, furnishings, and more.
You can’t use traditional concrete mixtures with 3D printing setups, as the pour would be too thick for the extruder nozzle. Instead, commercially available concrete for 3D printing boasts quick and easy extrusion capabilities along with rapid drying.
Bakers and chefs have embraced the 3D printing trend with machines capable of extruding edible materials such as chocolate, pastry, cheese, and more. You can melt and reconstitute viscous ingredients such as cheese and chocolate, while ingredients like pastry require heat to set.
3D printers for food are fairly rare, but you can find models available for both industrial and home use. Keep in mind that not all foods are printable. Those that are too runny won’t form solid layers after extrusion, while those that are too thick may clog the extruder nozzle.
When choosing a 3D printing material to work with, it’s important to consider your setup. Conventional 3D printers work best with particular materials, including plastics, resins, and more.
FDM 3D Printing
Fused deposition modeling printers, or FDM printers, are the machine style of choice for most home enthusiasts. It involves extruding and fusing multiple layers together to form a single 3D object.
FDM is typically the easiest and cheapest way to 3D print, and it works with a wide range of different filaments. Some of the most popular materials include:
- Thermoplastics such as PLA and ABS can melt and resolidify multiple times without losing integrity
- Composite materials, including wood, metal, carbon fibre, and more
- Clays used for ceramic 3D prints, including popular materials such as porcelain, stoneware, and terracotta
- Concrete for both large-scale and small-scale 3D printing projects
- Edible materials ranging from pastry dough to liquified chocolate
SLA 3D Printing
Stereolithography, also known as SLA, is the original 3D printing dating back to the 1980s. It offers a higher resolution and a smoother surface than FDM printing.
Instead of using temperature to cure 3D printed layers, SLA printing uses a laser or UV light to treat liquid resin. It hardens in a reservoir at designated coordinates to form a solid 3D shape. SLA printers are not typically as versatile as FDM models and use mostly different types of resin as their base material:
- Standard resin
- Specialty resins such as rapid resin, flexible resin, or ESD resin
- Light-reactive ceramics that cure using UV radiation
SLS 3D Printing
Selective laser sintering, or SLS 3D printing, involves curing powdered materials to make detailed and accurate 3D parts. It’s fast, efficient, and fairly cost-effective. SLS printing also produces incredibly durable parts and has pharmaceutical applications.
Few home setups feature an SLS printer. Instead, you can find them used across a variety of manufacturing industries. SLS printers are ideal for producing fast prototype models or large volumes of custom designs. While the finish might be rough, SLS prints rarely have the layer lines you see in FDM models.
SLS uses a variety of different powdered printing materials. Some of the most popular substrates include:
- Different types of nylon, particularly nylon-11 and nylon-12
- Nylon composites, including metal, wood, carbon fibre, and more
- TPU for high-end and medical-grade equipment
- Alumide composites or true metal powders
With such a wide variety of plastics, resins, and more to choose from, it’s tough to find the best 3D printing materials for your project. It’s important to consider factors ranging from flexibility and durability to aesthetic appeal and material costs.
Knowing the pros and cons of different filaments, powders, resins, and other materials can help you to make the most out of your next print. Using the right material for the job ensures that you’ll end up with components with the right material properties to make your next project a success.