PLA vs ABS: Which is Best for your 3D Printing Needs?

pla vs abs filament comparison

If you have an FDM 3D printer then you’re 90% there; you just need some 3D printer filament to print with.

Though you have a number of options – which we compared and analysed in our filament guide linked above – ABS and PLA.

They’re the most commonly used filaments in fused deposition modeling, are roughly the same price, and neither is noticeably inferior overall.

So which is best for you? We’re going compare PLA vs ABS across a variety of important factors to determine which is best for your personal 3D printing needs.

The Filament War: What can we agree on?

Before we compare differences, it’s important to talk similarities. ABS and PLA are both thermoplastics – meaning when heated they melt and become moldable, and become solid again when they cool – and cost almost the same price per kilogram. You use them both within fused deposition modeling, via a nozzle, layer-by-layer.

As for similarities, that’s about it.

The difference in styles can be seen clearly between the two materials, PLA vs ABS, with PLA providing a more glossy finish, and ABS tougher, matte, and more functional.

PLA vs ABS: Industry Usage

As expected, both materials have fairly wide adoption in industrial applications beyond 3D printing.

ABS is commonly used in toy production, most notably Lego, as well as in car parts, pipes, and electrical housings.

PLA is used in products such as cups, plastic bags, cutlery, medical implants, and more.

ABS vs PLA industry usage verdict: draw.

pla vs abs industry usage lego
One of the most-loved and perennial toy sellers of all time, Lego, is made using ABS. For that reason, it may never be as environmentally friendly as perhaps it could be.

PLA vs ABS: Environmental Friendliness

The main difference in term of environmental healthiness is that PLA is usually biodegradable, whereas ABS isn’t.

This is because PLA is made from renewable resources such as corn starch or sugar cane, and therefore biodegrades in under 2 months in an industrial composter, or in around 4 years in water – far better for the environment than ABS. ABS can be recycled however.

Moreover, because PLA is made from harmless and renewable resources, when extruded the fumes are harmless, and even pleasant to smell. This contrasts heavily with ABS, which when melted is not only unpleasant, but can cause headaches, feelings of sickness and nausea, and even eye and skin irritation.

ABS vs PLA environmental verdict: PLA wins.

pla vs abs environmental friendliness
PLA is far better environmentally, and biodegrades far quicker than almost all other thermoplastics as it made from ingredients such as corn starch.

PLA vs ABS: Ease of Print

Overall, PLA is easier to print. This is because it is less likely to warp during printing as PLA has a lower melting/printing temperature – at 190-220C rather than 220-250C. Warping can be a huge problem when trying to print accurately with ABS, leading to less sharp corners and features, with PLA more capable of printing finely detailed parts.

Moreover, when printing with ABS you’ll need a heated bed, at between 95-110C, to avoid serious issues with print quality. PLA does not require a heated bed due to its lower melting temperature.

This comes at a cost however – PLA’s worse heat resistance means it is not applicable in some areas where thermal resistance is important. PLA models lose their structure and begin to deform at around 60C, which can be problematic in some areas. Overall however, PLA is more simple, though less specialized for some areas of 3D printing.

ABS vs PLA ease of use verdict: PLA wins slightly.

pla vs abs ease of print
Though easier to print – and not requiring a heated bed – PLA loses out in post-processing and general toughness. This is a trade-off one must weigh up in deciding which to 3D print with.

PLA vs ABS: Surface Finish

This one is less a competition of which is objectively best, but simply what you are looking for.

ABS is known for its more matte finish, whereas PLA is more glossy.

ABS has the upper hand in versatility within this however, as it can be more easily sanded and machined to achieve the desired finish. PLA on the other hand is more difficult to work with – it can be sanded and machined but far more care must be taken to avoid damage.

ABS vs PLA surface finish verdict: a draw, it’s down to your personal preference.

pla vs abs surface finish comparison
The surface finish comparison between ABS, left; and PLA, right.

PLA vs ABS: Strength & Other Properties

We spoke about ABS being more prone to warping earlier, though this comes with its added strength.

Though both filaments are adequate for prototyping, ABS has some clear advantages, namely improved ductility meaning it can be more easily elongated.

Moreover, ABS is far stronger – hence why it needs a heated bed and higher temperatures to melt – and despite this disadvantage with warping, it more than makes up for it with its thermal stability, strength, ductility and machinability.

ABS vs PLA verdict: ABS is far better.

Conclusion

Therefore, the filament you choose is basically down to which you value more for your printing needs.

If you want a strong, ductile model and don’t mind investing extra in a 3D printer with a heated bed, go for ABS. If your priority is an easier to use filament, don’t want to invest in a heated bed, and prefer a glossy, sharper finish, you’ll prefer PLA.

Neither is objectively better, both are universally popular. The choice, that hopefully we at 3DSourced have helped you make, is down to you.

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