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What Are Some Common 3-D Printer Materials?
December 18, 2014
Continuing on with our series about 3-D printers and printing, today we turn to the materials commonly used in this technology. As an aside, the materials referenced in this article are purposely restricted to those that would be common in consumer-grade FDM (fused deposition modeling) 3-D printing. The materials we will cover then include Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA), and Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). We will take each in turn. To see a comparison table, please refer to the original article found at: http://3dprintingforbeginners.com/filamentprimer/
Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)
In addition to being used in 3-D printing, common uses of ABS are in the manufacturing of drain, waste, or vent pipes, automotive components, and kitchen appliances among others. ABS as a material is typically both tough and strong, somewhat flexible, and very resistant to heat. When used as material in 3-D printing, it is heated and melted before being forced through a nozzle onto the build platform. That platform is also typically heated to ensure the material being printed does not warp or crack.
ABS is the least expensive of any of the three common materials we are discussing in this article. It is among the more popular materials and can be used for a wide array of printing projects. Once an object is printed and cooled, ABS is a material that can be both sanded and painted. Additionally, multiple or broken pieces can be put together using ABS glue. Common colors of ABS filament include white, black, red, blue, yellow, green, or transparent.
In terms of its disadvantages, ABS is a petroleum-based non-biodegrable plastic, however it can be recycled. It should be noted as well that using ABS may result in some fumes, thus if possible printers should be installed in well-ventilated areas or in some cases accompanied by a fume hood. Lastly, ABS has been found to deteriorate with prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Polylactic Acid (PLA)
PLA, unlike ABS, is a completely biodegradable thermoplastic created from renewable resources including cornstarch, sugar cane, tapioca roots, or potato starch. As such, it is generally considered to be the most eco-friendly of any 3-D printing materials. In addition to 3-D printing, uses for PLA include in surgery such as implanted screws, rods, etc. because it can degrade into inoffensive lactic acid in the body. The article points out that while the PLA itself may be relatively harmless, when combined with color pigments, the toxicity can be altered. PLA is a touch material that can be somewhat brittle when cooled. Just as with ABS, though at at a lower temperature, PLA is extruded while heated onto a build surface. A heated surface is not required, it can be beneficial to the finished object.
PLA, overall, is considered by most to be the easiest material to work with in 3-D printing and some predict it will surpass ABS as the top choice for 3-D printing. Much of this is due to its low toxicity as well as it being more eco-friendly. PLA, like ABS, can be sanded out once cooled, and then can be painted over with acrylic paint, however it is harder to glue than ABS. It is also available in a wide variety of colors as well as transparent.
In terms of its disadvantages, PLA is not able to withstand as much heat as ABS, and turns soft when it reaches a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius. Despite this fact, the article notes that some may find this an advantage because its softness can allow for items to be bent or welded.
Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVA)
Turning now to the last material, PVA, which is somewhat unlike the others because it is soluble in water. It’s common uses include as a paper adhesive, a thickener, and also in feminine hygiene and adult incontinence products. It is also used in freshwater sport fishing as bait bag material because it will dissolve in water and thus attract the fish.
When used in 3-D printing, PVA is sometimes included with machines that have more than one extruder and serves as a support structure to materials with overhangs. Overhangs are defined by 3D Printing for Beginners as the parts of a 3-D model with no support below it, and are at an angle of 45 degrees or greater. If used for this type of function, once the object is complete, it can be placed in water which will dissolve the PVA.
PVA has a few disadvantages worth noting. For starters, the material attracts water which is certainly not ideal for printing. Additionally, ambient air moisture can hasten the deterioration of the filament. As such, it is advisable to store the material in a sealed box or container and may require drying before using it. It is the most expensive of these three common materials as well as the hardest to locate or source.
Now that we have covered these materials, here are a few more things of note:
Additional Materials to Consider: