Tech Specs on 3D Printing Materials

From ABS to PLA to Ceramic or Metal Powders, Here's a List of 3D Materials

3D print of small vase
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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, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of materials you can use in a 3D printer.

Thermoplastic 3D Printing Materials

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) properties:

  • ABS melting temperature 240°C or 464°F
  • Petroleum-based
  • ABS needs a heated bed or heated build area, in order 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, but others use disposable plastic trays that are similar to a Teflon-style pan.
  • ABS produces tough, durable objects. That is not to say that it cannot be broken, it can, but it is often combined with other materials, such as carbon fiber, that makes it much stronger.
  • Available in a variety of colors
  • ABS can be recycled /reformed, granulated and then re-extruded into filament again
  • ABS can smell more like melting plastic than PLA and it is recommended that you run your printer in a well-ventilated area.

PLA (Polylactic acid) properties:

  • PLA melting temperature 180°C or 356°F
  • Made from renewable sources, such as corn starch or sugar cane
  • PLA does not need a heated bed
  • PLA 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 actually harder to recycle/reuse than ABS

Nylon (Polyamide) properties:

  • There are a variety of nylons; here, we're referencing Nylon 618, one of the common grades for 3D printers.
  • Nylon 618 melts at 242°C or 464°F
  • Doesn’t require Kapton tape, but does have similar properties to ABS in that it cools quicker at the edges, resulting in some instability that will cause it to peel up 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 if you are creating joints or collars that need to slide easily

Metal 3D Printing Powders

With many metals having a melting point of greater than 500 C or 1,000 F, you can see why metal 3D printers are expensive and potentially dangerous if not used properly. Metal powders are themselves quite 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.

Finally, there are designers who have figured out how to hack their desktop 3D printer to print with edible materials such as chocolate, broccoli, and cake frosting mix, to name just a few interestingly unique projects.