Tech Specs on 3D Printing Materials

From ABS to PLA to ceramic or metal powders, here's a list of 3D materials

Materials science is going to be an in-demand specialty with the rise of 3D printing. When you hear about 3D printers, you often hear about printing in plastic. Still, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of materials you can use in a 3D printer.

Thermoplastic 3D Printing Materials

Thermoplastics are a common ingredient in 3D-printed projects.

3D Printer Printing Skull
Andrzej Wojcicki / Getty Images

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene

ABS has the following characteristics:

  • The melting temperature is 240° C or 464° F.
  • Petroleum-based.
  • Needs a heated bed or heated build area, to adhere to the build surface in a stable way, meaning that it will not warp or pull up and away from the build platform. Some people use Kapton tape on a heated platform to create good adhesion and prevent warping. Others use disposable plastic trays that are similar to a Teflon-style pan.
  • Produces tough, durable objects. It breaks, but it is often combined with other materials, such as carbon fiber, which makes it much stronger.
  • Available in a variety of colors.
  • Can be recycled or reformed, granulated, and then re-extruded into filament.
  • Smells more like melting plastic than PLA. Run your printer in a well-ventilated area.

Polylactic Acid

PLA melts at lower temperatures than ABS:

  • The melting temperature is 180° C or 356° F.
  • Made from renewable sources, such as corn starch and sugar cane.
  • Does not need a heated bed.
  • Comes in a variety of colors, including a clear, translucent filament.
  • Objects printed in PLA are not as durable or as strong as ABS.
  • Although made from renewable sources, it is harder to recycle and reuse than ABS.

Nylon (Polyamide)

Nylon comes in a variety of grades. Nylon 618 is common for 3D printing:

  • Melts at 242° C or 464° F.
  • Doesn’t require Kapton tape. It has similar properties to ABS in that it cools quicker at the edges, resulting in some instability that causes it to peel off a build platform.
  • No dangerous fumes when printed at the recommended temperatures, but still recommended to use in a well-ventilated area.
  • Lighter than ABS or PLA.
  • Offers a slippery surface for joints or collars that need to slide easily.

Metal 3D Printing Powders

With many metals having a melting point greater than 500° C or 1,000° F, metal 3D printers are expensive and potentially dangerous if not used properly. Metal powders are expensive as well. Some of the more common powders include:

  • Metal alloys
  • Titanium alloys
  • Cobalt chrome alloys
  • Stainless steel
  • Aluminum

3D Printing With Ceramic, Glass, and Food

Sculpteo, a 3D printing service bureau, prints in ceramic with a Z Corp 3D printer.

Shapeways, another manufacturer, discontinued its ceramics material and introduced porcelain for 3D printing as an alternative material.

Some designers have figured out how to hack desktop 3D printers to print with edible materials such as chocolate, broccoli, and cake frosting mix.