If you’ve just bought yourself an FDM 3D printer, then you’re almost ready to start printing to your heart’s content – you just need the materials. These 3D printer filament materials are simply melted and extruded from your 3D printer’s extruder, and printed to create your chosen model. But which material should you use, and which material is best for you?
- 1 What is 3D printer filament?
- 2 3D Printer Filament Types
- 2.1 Which 3D printer filament is best for me?
- 2.2 ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
- 2.3 3D printer filament PLA (Polylactic Acid)
- 2.4 HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene)
- 2.5 PET / PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
- 2.6 ASA (Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate)
- 2.7 PC (Polycarbonate)
- 2.8 PP (Polypropylene)
- 2.9 Carbon Fiber filled 3D printer filament
- 2.10 PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)
- 2.11 TPE / TPU – Flexible 3D printer filament
- 2.12 PEEK
- 2.13 Share this:
- 2.14 Like this:
What is 3D printer filament?
They look like colorful rolls of spaghetti, and are fed into your 3D printer, melted, and extruded to make your 3D model according to the specs you chose in your 3D software. These filaments are for used in fused deposition modeling, and cannot be used in any other 3D printing technology.
3D Printer Filament Types
There are two main types:
- 3D printer filament 1.75mm: the 1.75mm size is by far the most common, and is the smaller diameter of filament available.
- 3D printer filament 3mm: the larger size, 3mm filament appears to be going increasingly out of fashion with makers drawn to 1.75mm filament instead.
Which 3D printer filament is best for me?
Well, it depends. If you’re a beginner, then ABS or PLA are your best bet. If you want strength, then Polycarbonate, Carbon fiber filled, or even PEEK may be more appropriate – though they cost more, PEEK especially so.
3D Printer Filament Price: Cheap vs expensive filaments
PLA and ABS are the cheapest 3D printer filaments, costing between $23-30 per kilo on average, though if you purchase heavier spools (2.5kg+), this price can end up being cheaper per kilo, at around $20-25.
The most expensive 3D printer filament, PEEK, can set you back up to $700 per kilo. This is due to its strength, heat resistance and industrial use, which we’ll explain further later on.
For all the details, read on to find out everything about the best 3D printer filament materials available in 2019:
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
- Recommended extruder temperature: 220-250C.
- Heated bed: required, recommended temperature 95-110C.
ABS is one of the two most commonly used 3D printer filaments – along with PLA – as well as one of the first to be used industrially. ABS is known for having good mechanical properties, being both tough and possessing good impact resistant, able to withstand the pressures of everyday usage. As a result, ABS is a 3D printer filament often used for rapid prototyping.
As well as being one of the most common 3D printer filaments, it’s also one of the most versatile, available in many different colors and sizes; it can even be purchased colorless to be painted after printing. It’s also got good heat resistance, maintaining its structure and solid state up to far higher temperatures than some other 3D printer filaments like PLA. Due to some of these characteristics, and its low price, a liquid form of ABS is occasionally used in other 3D printing technologies, including stereolithography and PolyJet.
However, as it cools rapidly, this can cause issues with your models deforming after being printed, losing shape and quality. A heated bed helps to some degree but cannot eliminate this warping. Moreover, as ABS is composed of plastics, it can smell when printing as well as emit mildly toxic fumes.
3D printer filament PLA (Polylactic Acid)
- Recommended extruder temperature: 190-220C.
- Heated bed: optional.
PLA is another very commonly used 3D printer filament, known for being cheap and versatile as well as environmentally friendly. Unlike ABS, PLA does not require a heated bed when 3D printing filament, but remains optional for the best results.
Whereas 3D printer filaments like ABS and ASA are made of plastic, PLA’s main advantage is that it is made from renewable and biodegradable crops like corn starch. This makes PLA the undisputed eco-warrior favorite, and also means that when printing there is no foul smell or toxic fumes – but a pleasant aroma. PLA is also fairly easy to print, and can be purchased with a variety of niche options like wood-filled, bamboo, copper and carbon fiber.
However, PLA lacks the same level of heat resistance as ABS, and doesn’t fare well if prints are left in the sunlight, so it’s less appropriate for outdoor use. Models printed in PLA are also liable in some situations to get brittle and break. Additionally when printing, PLA can ooze due to how quickly it flows, creating small imperfections in your model – though this can be minimized by optimizing print settings within your slicer or 3D software. Based on these factors and it’s delicacy to water, post-processing models made of PLA can be harder than that of ABS.
HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene)
- Recommended extruder temperature: 230-245C.
- Heated bed: required, recommended temperature 110-115C.
HIPS is a dissolvable material mostly used as a support material when printing with ABS. The main advantage of using HIPS with your ABS 3D printer filament is that after printing, simply leave your model in Limonene, and the supports will dissolve and leave you with an untarnished model with no evidence of supports, allowing you to print complex geometries with no imperfections.
Having similar properties to ABS, it’s perfect for use with a dual extruder 3D printer, and its light weight means it’s well suited to parts where cutting weight is the aim. Moreover, HIPS is cheap, and though dissolvable in Limonene, it is still water resistant. It’s stronger than standard polystyrene, and possesses good mechanical and strength characteristics, leading to its use in plastic signs and point of sale displays.
However, as with ABS, HIPS requires the use of a heated bed, with a high recommended temperature along with a heated chamber with ventilation. HIPS 3D printer filament is liable to warp, so careful monitoring of temperature is required to avoid visible and rough looking layers. Likewise, as with ABS it exudes strong fumes, and is guilty of clogging up the printer nozzle which can waste time and material.
PET / PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
- Recommended extruder temperature: 230-250C.
- Heated bed: optional but recommended, at 75-90C.
Polyethylene Terephthalate and Glycol Modified PET are very commonly used in industry, such as in the production of water bottles and in injection molding. As a 3D printer filament, it has good impact resistance and fantastic thermal characteristics meaning it can cool down without any noticeable warping – counter to ABS or HIPS.
Due to these factors as well as its strong chemical resistance, PET and PETG are ideal for any model that will come into contact with food. It’s also recyclable, which is a plus for the environment, and doesn’t smell bed when printing.
However, PET’s softer surface makes it prone to wear, and is therefore not an ideal material for any application that involves heavy use. Moreover, similar to PLA, PET and PETG can cause slight imperfections during printing, with small hairs appearing on models.
ASA (Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate)
- Recommended extruder temperature: 235-255C.
- Heated bed: required, recommended temperature 80-90C.
ASA is very similar in terms of properties to ABS, and was actually developed to be a more UV resistant version as it is made from slightly different materials. This improved UV resistance means it has applications in outdoors products such as sunglasses.
ASA is a 3D printer filament with good impact resistance as well as being resistant to heat and scratching. However, due to the different rubber material used to produce ASA, it is more expensive than standard 3D printer filaments.
In addition, this new material composition means it requires a high extruder temperature with recommended ventilation to counteract the fumes produced melting it. A heated bed is also highly recommended to prevent the warping that can be more unpredictable with ASA than some other filaments.
- Recommended extruder temperature: 260-310C.
- Heated bed: required, recommended temperature ~90C.
Well known for its strength and durability as well as strong impact and heat resistance properties, PC is the workhorse material of the 3D printer filaments. Due to the previously mentioned factors as well as being lightweight, PC is ideal for use in tough environments as well as in engineering applications, to make CDs, sunglasses, and even riot gear.
Another interesting quality of Polycarbonate is that it is not strictly rigid but slightly bendy, meaning it can move flexibly without snapping or breaking. This makes it useful in areas where flexibility is a necessity. Moreover, PC’s ability to retain its structure until around 150C makes it ideal for use where high temperatures are involved.
However, as a result of these strong heat properties, very high temperatures are required to print the 3D printer filament. In addition, PC is very prone to warping – from small temperature deviations, or in the event of too much cooling – therefore requiring a specialized cooling chamber with heated bed. Polycarbonate also absorbs moisture from the air, which affects the quality of the finished print, requiring extra care.
- Recommended extruder temperature: 220-250C.
- Heated bed: 85-95C.
PP is another semi flexible 3D printer filament like PC, and is very lightweight. It however lacks some of the strength of PC, and is therefore used mostly in low strength applications where its flexibility is needed, such as in making ropes, stationery, and in the automotive and textiles sectors. It is also a main material used in injection molding.
PP is useful in 3D printing as it is both impact resistant and fatigue resistant. This makes it perfect for parts that need to be able to absorb shocks, and its scratch resistance comes in handy here too.
However, PP lacks the strength necessary in many industries, ruling it out for many applications. It is also liable to warping during printing, and is also relatively expensive. Moreover, if you want to customize your model post print, PP is not a good option due to its low solubility for different colored dyes.
Carbon Fiber filled 3D printer filament
- Recommended extruder temperature: depends on main material.
Carbon fiber filled 3D printer filaments are those which contain short fibers infused into the original filament – such as PLA or ABS – to give it extra strength and hardiness. Other carbon fiber filled filaments exist, such as PETG, Nylon, and PC. Markforged have pioneered FDM 3D printers which utilize these filaments.
These extremely strong fibers mean 3D printed parts will be stronger, retain their shape better (as the fibers prevent shrinking), and best of all, lighter.
However, the use of these carbon fibers within the 3D printer filaments can increase the chance of the printer nozzle clogging during printing. Moreover, the filament itself is not suitable for all printers due to its enhanced properties and toughness – basic RepRap 3D printers or cheap 3D printers may struggle. Lastly, the filament becomes slightly more brittle with its enhanced strength, which may not always be ideal.
PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)
PVA is probably best known for its ability to be dissolved water, and it is therefore often used as a support material in geometrically complex prints.
It is perfect for these prints as its solubility means that leaving a print overnight in water completely removes the PVA supports, leaving no trace or blemishes that would otherwise affect the quality of the print.
If necessary, PVA can also be used to print models, rather than just as a support filament. It is however, not ideal for this, as like PC it absorbs moisture from there air, and any contact with water will spell doom for your model. It therefore requires 3D printer filament storage to retain its properties. Moreover, PVA is liable to clog the 3D printer’s nozzle when printing if left hot without exruding any 3D printer filament. It’s also expensive, which may be a barrier considering it cannot be used for any product intended to be taken outside.
TPE / TPU – Flexible 3D printer filament
- Recommended extruder temperature: 225-245C.
- Heated bed: optional, recommended temperature 45-60C.
TPE – or Thermoplastic Elastomers – blend plastics and rubber together to create this special type of flexible 3D printer filament. TPE is flexible due to its elastic, and is far more so than other flexible 3D printer filaments like PP. Hence, it is used commonly in car tires, rubber bands, and also in the fashion industry.
There are several different types of TPE, including TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane). These flexible 3D printer filaments are great for absorbing shocks, as well as dampening vibrations. When printing with TPE or TPU, you’ll notice it has fairly similar characteristics to PLA.
However, TPE can be difficult to print, and due to its properties can create small imperfections on printed models. These imperfections come in the form of small blobs and strings, and are more likely to occur if using a Bowden extruder.
- Recommended extruder temperature: 375-410C.
- Heated bed: 130-145C.
PEEK is a very strong plastic that, due to its phenomenal thermal resistance, requiring extremely high temperatures to print. It’s a high grade, industrial material that is even used on occasion instead of metals as it is so strong and durable.
PEEK is used in industries including aerospace industry, the packaging industriy in food containers, as well as occasionally in high fashion sneakers. Another advantage is PEEK is non-toxic when printed, as opposed to ABS, and features great chemical resistance.
However, these advantages don’t come cheap, and PEEK is certainly far from inexpensive. Expect to pay around $500/kg, sometimes up to even $700. Moreover, it requires these very high temperatures to print, meaning that only industrial 3D printers can print it effectively, no cheap DIY 3D printer kit machines are likely to cut it.