3D Printing Materials Selection Guide

Different Types of 3D printing Technologies utilizes different engineering grades or their equivalent plastic materials to 3D print plastic or metal parts. For example, ABS plastic or ABS equivalent materials are available for FDM 3D printing in the form of spool or as light sensitive resin for SLA 3D printing. In this article we will discuss various 3D printing materials, their advantages and limitations.

3D Printing Material Selection

Following points shall be considered during the selection of 3D printing materials. This will help you with the selection of best 3D printer material for your application.

  1. Mechanical Properties of the material.
  2. Compatibility of the 3D printer with the manufacturing conditions for the material.
  3. Material Cost.
  4. Application of the manufactured product: Indoor or outdoor use
  5. Availability of the material color.
  6. Impact of heat on material properties.

3D Printing Materials

Following plastic material or their equivalents are widely used in the market for 3D printing plastic parts. Each of these materials has its own advantages, limitations and applications.

  1. ABS
  2. PLA
  3. Nylon
  4. PET
  5. PETG
  6. HIPS
  7. Polycarbonate
  8. Polypropylene
  9. PVA
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene ( ABS )

ABS is a thermoplastic engineering grade material that is extensively used to manufacture injection molded plastic parts. Therefore ABS is a good choice for 3D printing parts for engineering applications. It is available in spool form for FDM 3D printing and as Resin for SLA 3D printing.

Advantages of ABS
  • Low Cost.
  • Strong and lightweight.
  • Available in various colors.
  • Good impact and wear resistance.
  • Good heat resistance.
Limitations of ABS
  • Heated bed and enclosed 3D printer is required to avoid warpage in ABS 3D printed parts.
  • Degrades with humidity.
  • Non-biodegradable.
  • For indoor use only.
Applications of ABS
  • Indoor engineering enclosures.
Polylactic Acid ( PLA )

PLA is also a thermoplastic material made from corn starch and has characteristics similar to polypropylene (PP), polyethylene (PE), or polystyrene (PS). It is a biodegradable plastic and very useful for short lifespan plastic applications such as water bottles. For 3D printing it is mostly used by hobbyists.

Advantages of PLA
  • Low Cost
  • Available in a variety of colors and composites.
  • Biodegradable plastic material.
  • Easy to 3D print.
  • Good Surface Finish.
Limitations of PLA
  • Degrades when comes in contact with water for a long duration.
  • For indoor use only.
  • Low heat resistance.
Applications of PLA
  • Decorative parts.
  • School projects.
Nylon (Polyamide)

Nylon is a thermoset flexible with good strength and strong white plastic material.

Advantages of Nylon
  • Ideal for parts that require good tensile and mechanical strength.
  • Very good toughness and flexibility.
  • Good Impact and abrasion resistance.
  • Very good chemical resistance.
Disadvantages of Nylon
  • Absorbs water.
  • Prone to warpage.
  • Very difficult to 3D Print : Heated bed with enclosed 3D printing area is preferred.
Applications of Nylon
  • Manufacture tough parts such as gears, screws, nuts and bolts.
  • Manufacture parts that involve rubbing.

PET is a water resistant, flexible and strong material and it can be a good alternative to ABS.

Advantages of PET
  • Easy to 3D print.
  • Strong and flexible.
  • Food safe grades are available.
  • Fumes are not generated during 3D printing.
  • Glossy finish.
Applications of PET
  • Good alternative to ABS.
  • Manufacture functional products.

PETG is a type of PET mixed with glycol semi-rigid material with good impact resistance. It is generally used to manufacture transparent water resistant parts such as water bottles and outdoor enclosures.

Advantages of PETG
  • Easy to 3D print.
  • Good surface finish.
  • Good transparency options are available.
  • Chemical and Water resistant.
  • Fatigue resistant.
  • Food grade 3D printing material options are also available.
Limitations of PETG
  • Semi-rigid material
  • Easy to wear.
Applications of PETG
  • Food grade 3D printed parts.
  • Water-resistant part applications.
HIPS ( High Impact Polystyrene )

HIPS is generally used as a support material for ABS 3D printing because it dissolves in limestone.

Advantages of HIPS
  • Dissolves in limestone. Therefore it is used as support material for 3D printing,
  • Low cost.
  • Water resistant.
  • High impact resistance.
Disadvantages of HIPS
  • Emits vapors during 3D printing. Therefore proper ventilation is required during 3D printing.
  • Heated bed is required.
Applications of HIPS
  • Used as packing material because of high impact resistance.
  • Works as support material for ABS 3D printing.
Polycarbonate (PC)

Polycarbonate is a high strength, high heat deflection, impact resistant clear thermoplastic material used for various engineering applications.

Advantages of Polycarbonate (PC)
  • High glass transition temperature. 
  • Impact resistant.
  • High strength.
  • Clear Plastic
Disadvantages of Polycarbonate (PC)
  • Very difficult to 3D Print because it requires high extrusion and build plate temperature.
  • Moisture absorption.
  • Prone to warpage
Applications of Polycarbonate (PC)
  • Used to manufacture clear parts.
  • Manufacture industrial grade enclosures.
  • Heat resistant parts or where part working temperature is high.
Polypropylene ( PP )

Polypropylene is a tough plastic with very good fatigue resistance properties. It has a semi-crystalline structure.

Advantages of PP
  • Tough
  • Good fatigue resistance.
  • Heat resistant
  • Good surface finish
Disadvantages of PP
  • High cost.
  • Prone to warpage
  • Low strength
Applications of PP
  • Live Hinges
  • Road Breakers
PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)

Similar to HIPS, PVA is a soft and biodegradable material used as support material in 3D printing. It can completely dissolve in water.

Advantages of PVA
  • Biodegradable and soft.
  • Soluble in water
Disadvantages of PVA
  • High Cost
Applications of PVA
  • Used as support material in applications where complex shapes need to be 3D printed.

We will keep adding more information on various 3D printing materials. Please add your suggestions, comments or questions on 3D printing materials in the comment box.

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