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  • Charlie Kocur

What Material Do Home 3D Printers Use?

Like all technology, 3D printers are getting better and better every day. New advancements and cheaper hardware move quickly and get passed-on to hobbyist users very quickly. But what materials do 3D printers use?


Even with all of this growth, 3D printing is still a bit of a mystery to the average person. A common question I get about 3D printing is, "What material can you 3D print with?".


It's a fair question, and one that can be answered pretty simply. It's plastic.

Now, nothing in life is ever that simple. There are a lot of variations to plastics that 3D printers can use. This post will cover the most common types of materials used for home 3D printing, a little bit about them, and what some of their advantages and disadvantages are.


While it's all based in some type of plastic, it's pretty astounding what is being done with the materials available to hobbyist 3D printers.


 

Home-Grade 3D Printers

Two styles of printer to be aware of.

While new 3D printing technologies are being brought to the home constantly, there are essentially two different styles of printer to be aware of. These are FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) and SLA (Stereolithography).

Right away I will say that my suggestion is to not worry about SLA printers if you are coming to this site as a beginner. They are really cool and fill some specific needs, but they're less common. In my opinion, they are much less approachable for beginners vs. FDM style machines.


FDM printers are by far the most common printer that you will see. Because of this, and my familiarity with FDM printers is much higher than SLA, we will be focused only on FDM-compatible materials for this post.

A basic FDM style 3D printer. SLI printers are usually tall and narrow, and completely enclosed in a see-through shell.




 


What is 3D printer filament and where to get it?

Before diving-in, it's important to know this bit of terminology as I'll be using it going forward. "Filament" is the name for the material 3D printers use to print with.

In short, filaments are small wires of a material that get fed in to the 3D printer. The printer takes the filament, melts it, and then deposits it in a specific location.

The build-up of the melted filament cools in place, leaving the final 3D printed model behind!

What does filament look like?

3D printer filament looks like a small, round wire. It comes in many colors which you would purchased based on the color you want your end print to be.



Short snips of 3D printing filament. This shows the round cross-section of the small wires.

Some filament has bright colors, some have a glittery finish, some are transparent, and some even imitate wood!


All filament arrives on what are called "spools". The filament wire is wrapped-around tightly and the spool unrolls as the printer pulls in more filament for use.




Here is an example of how spools of filament usually arrive. They are generally always vacuum sealed to keep out moisture.


This is how one of my recent filament purchases arrived.


 

How to buy filament.

There are a few things to be aware of when purchasing filament for the first time. No worries though, it's all very simple!

Once you decide on what material you need (covered later in this post), all that needs to be kept in mind is three simple things:

  1. The amount of filament that needs to be ordered.

  2. Compatibility of the filament with your machine.

  3. The color or finish you'd like on your filament.

1. How much filament to order?

The standard for ordering filament is to do it by weight, not by length. The spools of filament generally come in .5kg or 1kg increments. Other sizes are possible so just take a look at the product listings for details.

Two different sizes of filament rolls.


This weight measurement helps standardize things a bit, and makes buying easier. You can simply look at the price per kilogram to see if you're spending too much on a basic material. Alternately, something too cheap may be a poor quality. So find a balance.


Each spool can last a while but how long depends on how often your printer is in use. I often find that if I'm printing heavily on nights or weekends, I can go through a spool of filament in a month or two.


 

2. How to check filament compatibility with your printer.

Compatibility Part 1 - Size:

Filament for home use comes in a few sizes, listed by diameter of the filament wire itself. The most commonly used is 1.75mm however check with your specific printer for details because some machines use 2.85mm filament.


It's important to get the right size for your printer, otherwise it won't work! The size will be stated somewhere in the product description when purchasing a printer. It will also likely be in the instruction manual that arrives with your printer which contains all the specs.


Compatibility Part 2 - Material:

Later in this post we will cover a few specifics about some materials and why they may or may not work with some printers. What's important to understand for this section is that some materials won't work well with certain printers.


To play it safe, all home 3D printers can use what is called "PLA". This is the type of plastic that the filament is made of. PLA comes in all kinds of colors so this offers plenty of options for most people.


Even with lots of experience and a capable printer, 98% of everything I have ever printed has been in PLA!

When researching your printer, keep an eye out for compatible filaments. Low-end printers may only work well with PLA, while mid-range and high-end printers will work with just about anything you can throw at them!


 

3. Colors!

Filaments come in a variety of colors as will be explored more later on in this post. Most 3D printers only print one color at a time, so sometimes multiple spools are needed in your collection to give you options.

I like to keep at least 3 different colors of basic PLA filament on-hand at any given time. That way I don't get too bored with using one color for an extended period of time.


Sometimes this number grows to 6 or so when I'm printing a lot or have a special project in mind that requires lots of filament in specific colors.

How many colors you want is mostly a personal and probably financial decision. Fancy filaments can quickly add-up in price!


Whatever you do, you want a balance. Enough to complete the projects you have in mind, but also not too much that some filament gets old.


Old filament that sits too long can actually go bad and print poorly. Over time, moisture from the air can get in, ruining the filament quality.


 

Where to buy filament.

Unless you have an amazingly well-stocked computer store in the area, it's unlikely you'll come across 3D printer filament in a physical store. The best way to find it is online.

There are many options for this depending on what you're looking for.


For the basics.

Of course, Amazon has an amazing selection of 3D printer filament. 3D Printer Filament on Amazon.

They offer pretty good prices and is generally where I go for any basic filament needs. Simply search for the size and color you need, and you're likely to see several offerings from different filament brands.


For unique filaments.

A really cool thing about 3D printing though is that it drives people to innovate. What I mean by that is that there are several small companies out there doing some fun things with specialty filaments.


Online storefronts like MatterHackers or the Ultimate 3D Printing Store offer great selection. They specialize in 3D printing so they can also help answer any questions you might have about a particular filament.


There are also companies that just make unique filaments and sell directly. My favorite of these is Proto-Pasta. I'm not affiliated with them in any way, I just like their filaments. They are unique and work well with my printer.

Many of these brands also sell on Amazon, so if you're more comfortable shopping there it's possible to find most if not all of these filaments through Amazon.


Brands of Filament

There are many, many available brands of 3D printing filament. It's nice to have a lot of options, but for a beginner it might be a little overwhelming!


Here's a brief list of filament brands that I have personally used and have had positive results with. They didn't require too many adjustments to get printing nicely and always give me consistent results.

  • Hatchbox: You can always find this in my house. Good quality with lots of color options.

  • Proto-Pasta: I love Proto-Pasta! They have unique, premium filaments that provide cool finishes to projects. I usually only order this for special occasions because it's a little more expensive, but the results are great each time.

  • 3D Solutech: Just like Hatchbox, this is a staple in my 3D printing cabinet. Plenty of color options, reliable printing, and a good price. It's hard to beat!

  • Ziro: I have only used their "marble" look filament but I was really happy with the results. I recommend it for printing small versions of statues.

  • Mika3D: Like Ziro, I ordered this because they had a special filament I wanted. I tried out their rainbow filament and it looks amazing. It really gives a unique, one of a kind look to any print.


 

So what exactly is 3D printer filament made of?

Now, back to the matter at hand. We know that 3D printer filament arrives on spools as filament, but what exactly is it all made of?


3D printing filament is basically plastic.



As mentioned, the simple answer to the "what do you print with?" question is plastic. That answer only skims the surface though.


There are dozens of different types of plastic-based materials to work with. We're going to do a high-level overview of the most popular two varieties, "PLA" and "ABS".


By the end of this post you'll be familiar with 3D printing materials and their different characteristics. We'll also hit on a few advantages and disadvantages of each.


At the end, I'll recommend some of my favorite materials I've used and links to where you can try them out for yourself! I'll also mention a few additional filament types to be aware of.


PLA Filament

PLA is easily the most popular and widely used filament in the world. It has some pretty cool features and is considered easy to work with.


For those who are new to 3D printing, PLA is where you will want to start. I rarely find a need to use other filaments even after years of using it.


PLA stands for Polylactic Acid. It's considered a "bioplastic" and is basically a polyester-like material derived from renewable resources.


Advantages of PLA filament.

The biggest advantage of PLA is that people say it's easy to work with. This is pretty general to say, but it's true!

3D printing can be challenging sometimes. With such accurate machines, proper temperatures and speed need to be maintained.

PLA as a material is a bit more forgiving. You are more likely to have a good outcome even if things aren't exactly perfect with your settings.

In addition to the general ease of use, PLA has some other distinct advantages:

  • PLA is relatively "green": PLA plastic is derived from renewable resources, commonly sugarcane and corn. It's even biodegradable and commercially compostable!

  • PLA is pretty safe: Because it's derived not from oil but from renewable natural sources, PLA is considered safe for people. In fact, if you've ever used a plastic cup or utensil that says it's biodegradable or compostable, it's most likely made of PLA! That said, there are a few reasons why 3D prints might not be safe for food use, so don't go drinking from 3D printed cups!

  • PLA has low fumes: Printing with PLA filament causes very few fumes coming off of the printer. This makes it ideal for indoor use. While you should always maintain good ventilation, PLA puts off fewer smells and fumes than other materials.

  • Low expansion & contraction: Basic physics tells us that as things heat up, they expand; and as they cool, they contract or shrink. PLA does this, but at a smaller rate than other materials like ABS. Because this difference is small, PLA prints have low risk of deforming once they cool down.

  • Popularity means options: Because PLA is so popular, it often offers up the widest range of colors and styles. PLA comes in all colors of the rainbow, can contain different finishes like matte or gloss, and can even contain glitter to make a print shiny!

Disadvantages of PLA filament.

I know you're thinking, "Why isn't everything made of PLA? It sounds amazing!"

While it is pretty cool stuff there are still some key disadvantages. Here are some of the main challenges with PLA:

  • PLA is relatively weak: PLA filament has little tolerance for force. Where a material like ABS would likely bend and return back to its original shape, PLA is brittle and tends to just crack or snap.

  • Wears-out more quickly: PLA does not hold up well against things like direct sunlight, water, or high heat. These types of environments make the plastic even more brittle than it already is! I would not recommend PLA for any projects that are going to be put under any kind of stress or that are kept outside for long periods of time (several weeks or more).

Fortunately, most of these disadvantages only matter for industrial purposes. PLA is a fantastic material for the majority of your home 3D printed products.

In fact, PLA comes in some really unique varieties that offer more options than simple color changes. It's time to touch briefly on composite PLA materials.


 

Composite PLA

In an effort to create even more options for more users, composite PLA materials have been developed. These are a low-cost and user-friendly way to give some unique properties to the basic plastic we know and love.

To simplify, composite PLA materials basically have other material mixed-in to the PLA. Depending on the mix and the type of material that's mixed in, it can give the basic PLA some new properties.

While there are many, many options out there, here are a few of my favorite composite PLA materials that I have come across so far.

  • Wood PLA (made by Hatchbox): That's right, wood! This is one of my favorite filaments that Ive personally used. This filament essentially has saw-dust mixed in with the PLA plastic to give it a wood-like characteristic. Most people are very surprised when you show them an item printed in wood. Wood PLA can not only be sanded or painted, but it also works with most wood stains!

  • Metal PLA (made by Proto-Pasta: These come in a few varieties including steel, bronze, and iron. This filament contains small shavings of the metals they represent. The models printed with these materials can actually be polished to a point where they look like real metal. The Iron filament even rusts!

  • Conductive PLA (made by Proto-Pasta): I haven't gotten my hands on this yet but it seems so cool. This material can conduct electricity once it's printed! Great for custom electronics projects.

A note about these materials is that since they are not 100% PLA, they take on different properties. So the ease of use and health risks of use may change. Always check with the manufacturer for details and precautions.


ABS Filament

The next most common filament in use with home printers is ABS plastic. Compared to PLA, ABS is a more traditional plastic. ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. It's derived from chemicals including petroleum.

ABS is a little more worrisome when it comes to fumes & indoor safety so good ventilation I would suggest is required.

Compared to PLA, it's much less friendly to the environment, but that gives it some of its positive 3D printing properties, primarily its durability.

ABS plastic is also not as easy to use. It requires more specific temperatures and in some cases low-end 3D printers may not get hot enough or can't maintain temperature well enough to print successfully.

ABS is available in many colors, just like PLA. With a similar variety of looks, it might be confusing to choose between ABS or PLA. Here are some advantages and disadvantages to ABS to help you decide.


Advantages of ABS filament.
  • Durability: This is probably my number one reason for using ABS. If I need a part that is fairly strong or is something I want to last a long time, I'll print it in ABS. It also does well outdoors and holds-up longer than PLA by far.

  • Flexibility: In situations where brittle PLA may crack, ABS simply bends. For example, ABS is perfect for a drone frame. If the drone crashes, the ABS will flex and absorb the impact. A PLA frame might simply crack or snap.

  • Lots of options for finishing: ABS plastic is very workable. It handles sanding and painting well. There are also options to smooth-out the final print using acetone vapor that leaves a really cool, glossy and smooth effect on the final printed model.

Disadvantages of ABS filament.
  • Difficult to use: there are a lot of things that can go wrong with ABS printing that might cause the print to fail. The main concern is temperature management. ABS expands and contracts much more than PLA. If the print begins to cool and contract too soon, the print will warp and can fail or just come out with really poor quality. ABS is an advanced material and I would recommend getting some experience with PLA before trying it out.

  • Requires specific printer setups: ABS filament, due to the need for keeping specific and consistent temperatures, requires a few features that may not be a part of budget printers. A heated bed is basically required, and printers with an enclosed chamber is hugely helpful to maintain a warm ambient temperature. This all helps with successful prints.

  • Fumes: It's still a bit up in the air about how dangerous fumes from 3D printing can be. ABS fumes are carcinogenic at extremely high temperatures (about twice the temperature you'd print at) but is probably still not good for you to breathe-in at 3D printing temperatures either. In any case, extremely good ventilation should be part of your setup if you want to print ABS indoors.

With all of this said, I do appreciate ABS for its practicality and it has its place despite some of the challenges it comes with. ABS is a good consideration if you are looking to create actual durable, useable parts on your home 3D printer.

I would recommend looking at ABS once you get more familiar with PLA and have some time printing under your belt.


Other Common Materials

ABS and PLA are not the only filaments out there, they are just the most commonly used.

3D printing materials technology is growing and changing constantly. I would expect to see the options grow as time goes on.


PETG Filament

PETG stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol-Modified. It seems to be an up-and-coming material that may be just as common as PLA or ABS in the near future.

It's a similar material to what they make bottles and bags out of for food. This means in its pure form, PETG is relatively safe.

That said, it's tough so it won't not going to break-down and be biodegradable like PLA. On the plus-side, it should be recyclable like a plastic bottle would be!

PETG filament shares some of the best traits from both PLA and ABS. It's easy to print like PLA, but has great strength properties like ABS.

While it has the strength of ABS, PETG doesn't expand and shrink as much with temperature changes, meaning more reliable printing. Plus the food-safe grade material means it may be a little safer to print indoors (but again, refer to the manufacturer descriptions, do additional research, and ensure good ventilation before printing indoors).

PETG is also pretty resilient to the elements, unlike PLA which has problems in harsher environments. It's also said that PETG offers a smoother finish but I don't have any first-hand experience with that.

I actually have my first roll of PETG waiting for me to try out once I find a project that needs it! I'm looking forward to the ease of use and strength to make it part of my practical prints that I use around the house.


Nylon Filament

Most people are familiar with the material called nylon. It's extremely strong and a bit flexible. In fact, it's much stronger and more flexible than even ABS!

Nylon is a pretty advanced material and can be a bit of a challenge to print.

One of they key factors of printing Nylon is a very high temperature. Make sure to check with your printer's manual or even directly with the manufacturer to see if it can support nylon's print needs.

Be aware that even if a printer can technically reach a temperature, the extruder mechanism must be capable of withstanding that high temperature as well. Unless a manufacturer or manual specifically says it's ok, you may be at risk of starting a fire or burning-out your machine if you don't know what you're doing!

Another challenge of nylon is that it absorbs water. It's not a huge deal once something has been printed, but moisture in a filament strand before its printed can lead to very low quality or failed prints.

Nylon also warps a bit more like ABS when it cools, so a heated bed and an environment or enclosure to keep things at a good temperature are pretty much required.


Flexible Filament

Flexible filaments come in a few different types, but in short, they are almost rubber-like in consistency. A brand I'm most familiar with, NinjaFlex is what I'll use as a reference point, but there are other flexible filaments out there.

Flexible filaments are pretty darn cool when you can get them to print. I have seen some well-done, squishy phone cases made from these materials.

Flexible filaments can be a unique challenge and requires a lot of patience to get right though. Because the filament is so flexible and squishy, it requires an extra gentle touch.

Not only do temperatures have to be set properly, but the printer must move slowly. Having a slow extruder speed is essential.

If a printer moves faster than the nozzle can melt and push this filament out, the extruder will basically 'eat' the filament and cause jams and a big mess.

Most other filaments are very firm, so if a printer moves a little fast or the temperature is a little low, it will either force the plastic out anyway or it will grind down and the gears in the extruder will slip. It will mean a failed print, but the extruder will probably be fine.

Since the flexible filament isn't firm enough to push the unmelted filament out, it may just end up getting wrapped-around the gears and causing issues.


 

Unusual 3D printers may have unique material.

The vast majority of home 3D printers use the materials already discussed in this post. there are a few fun and unusual specialty machines that are starting to make their way in to the market though.

I don't have any experience with these personally, but they are super fun and worth mentioning. It's really cool to see a 3D printer print more than just plastic!


Pancake Bot

The pancake bot prints pancakes in fun shapes. This is one of the more hilarious types of 3D printers I have seen.

It's basically just a giant, flat griddle pan with a simple extruder positioned above it. A batter reservoir sits on top of the machine and it gets dispensed accurately as needed to make the pancake.

This was an actual, for-sale item for a while however I've been having trouble tracking it down recently. Here's more info on their original Kickstarter.

For as cool as it was, maybe it wasn't quite ready for prime-time yet, who knows? I just know I want one!

Technically, this only prints shapes in a single layer so it's not totally 3D. However since it's technically printing food I'll allow it!


Candy Bot

This fancy-looking machine is a 3D printer that uses chocolate! While I've seen some experimental 3D printers that print candy and chocolate before, this is the first one I've seen for sale to just anyone.

If you're interested in more about this, it's for sale on Amazon here.


Anything else?

Well... not really; at least at the home level. Pro-grade 3D printing can use materials like metals or even cement to create full-size houses with giant 3D printers!

Every few years there always seems to be more interesting home-use machines talked about and proposed for the home market. That said, very few actually end up making it to production an availability for consumers.

I do think however, that as technology progresses and becomes more affordable, we will see some pretty cool "alternative" 3D printers come to light.


 

Will things change?

For now, the majority of 3D printing occurs with some kind of plastic. With new material developments in the professional world, additional home-use filaments are bound to make their way to market eventually.

3D printing is still a fairly young technology. It's just recently gotten to the point where we now have these great little machines in our home. Now, as more people pick up printers and the home 3D printing market grows, hopefully we continue to see our options grow!

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