3D printing filaments: your material choices at a glance

  Posted on September 28, 2016

3D printing, where you turn a computer-based model into a physical object by ‘printing’ it layer by layer, is becoming increasingly popular, for product designers, design engineers, manufacturers, hobbyists and more.
3D printing enables us to create complex shapes and structures that traditional machines typically struggle with. It allows us to combine raw materials in new ways, and because there’s no need for large upfront tooling investment, it can make one-off and small-scale production runs commercially viable. Add to this its green credentials – there’s less waste than with traditional manufacturing – and it’s clear why there’s so much buzz around 3D printing.

One area where it’s attracting particular interest is with design engineers, for whom the possibility of cheap and rapid prototyping is now a reality. 3D-printed prototyping has the power to transform and accelerate their working processes, better understand their designs and produce superior end products. Previously, the investment needed to set up and tune manufacturing machinery would have made this type of frequent prototyping prohibitively expensive for many.

Choose the right materials for 3D printing
Whether you’re looking to use 3D printing on an industrial scale or want to try the technology at home, you need to pick the right 3D printing material – known as ‘filament’ – for the product you’re creating. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution: each material has distinct benefits; understanding them is key to getting good results.

This is an emerging market, with new products and even product categories regularly becoming available.  Verbatim is part of the Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings Group, one of the largest chemical companies in the world, which has allowed them to draw on Mitsubishi’s long-standing polymer expertise and bring new products to market to satisfy the needs of the 3D print industry.

To help you make the best choices, we’ve put together this high-level guide covering the filament materials Verbatim currently offers. This includes established options ABS and PLA, as well as emerging offerings such as TPE, PET, PP and BVOH.

The importance of filament quality in 3D printing
Whichever material you choose, it’s essential you use high-quality filament. To print accurately and consistently, your printer needs to pull through a consistent feed of material. Good-quality filaments guarantee the diameter of the product is within tight limits and the make-up of the material is consistent. Without this, the strength and appearance of your end results will likely suffer.

The key thing to look for is the filament’s diameter accuracy: if you’re working with 1.75mm-diameter ABS or PLA, high-quality filament would offer variances of no more than 0.02mm, while with 2.85mm-diamenter ABS/PLA filament, this figure would be at most 0.03mm.

One other thing to bear in mind is that many filament materials’ properties alter when exposed to moisture. If this happens, it can affect your printing results. Make sure you buy material in sealed containers with desiccant included, and store it correctly when you’re not using it.

ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)
ABS, a petroleum-based plastic, has long been a popular choice for 3D printers, thanks to its low cost, toughness, durability and ability to withstand higher temperatures. Once cooled, it can easily be sanded and painted, and is soluble in acetone, enabling you to modify your creations after printing.  

ABS contracts when it cools, meaning you must keep your printed product warm while printing is in progress. ABS therefore requires the printbed (the surface onto which the material is laid) to be heated to around 90°C.

As a petroleum-based product, it’s less environmentally friendly than certain other filament types and doesn’t biodegrade, although it can be recycled.   

PLA (Polylactic acid)
PLA is the other mainstay of the 3D printing world. Compared to ABS, it’s easier to work with and eco-friendlier, because it’s made from plant material. PLA doesn’t require a heated printbed, though in some cases, printing onto a bed at around 60°C can improve results.

PLA enables higher print speeds than ABS, but has a lower melting point, with some types of PLA becoming malleable at 50°C. It’s therefore less suitable for objects that will be exposed to heat, such as engine parts.

Once it cools, PLA is relatively strong but more brittle than ABS and can warp. The new high performance PLA material from Verbatim, for example, includes special additives from Mitsubishi Chemical that virtually eradicate these issues and offers longer life. In addition, the unique mix is soft enough to allow 3D printed objects made from Verbatim’s high performance PLA to be sandpapered for a smooth finish, a key feature when producing 3D objects for display purposes. PLA is also biodegradable – the speed at which this happens depends on ambient conditions.

TPE (Thermoplastic elastymer)
Where both ABS and PLA are rigid, TPE filaments are soft and elastic. This is a relatively new area for 3D printing, and an interesting product is Verbatim’s PRIMALLOY, which brings new levels of flexibility and rubber-like elasticity. It’s strong, highly oil-, chemical- and heat-resistant, and can withstand repeated flexing.

As a result, this type of filament makes 3D printing a viable production technique for products such as tool grips, seals, gaskets, tubing, electrical connection sheaths and medical bags.

A heated print bed of around 50°C is recommended, but TPE can be trickier to work with than ABS and PLA.

PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)
PET – the material many plastic drinks bottles are made from – is growing in popularity for 3D printing.  PET is relatively easy to work with as it has good layer adhesion, doesn’t give off the smells that ABS does and is recyclable.  PET is also solvent-resistant, meaning it can (in most cases) be used for food and other types of packaging.

An example of a PET filament is Verbatim’s which is easy to use, is very sturdy (with a tensile strength of 70Mpa*) and offers a high level of transparency (optical transmittance 90%*).  Users will find the printed objects will be relatively smooth and provide an attractive transparent, sparkly appearance.

PP (Polypropylene)
A long-standing staple of plastic containers, PP 3D print filament enables you to create durable, flexible, transparent, heat- and chemical-resistant containers for food packaging, medical equipment, IT kit and other appliances.

It requires a heated print bed of around 100°C and is ideal for objects that require softness, transparency and heat resistance.

BVOH (Butenediol vinyl alcohol co-polymer)
Unlike the other filament materials we’ve looked at, BVOH is water-soluble. This means it lends itself to different, but at times complementary, use cases. For example, because it offers great adhesion to both ABS and PLA, you can use it to support these materials during printing, before dissolving it later. This enables you to create complex structures that wouldn’t be possible with ABS or PLA alone.

However, unlike other water-soluble materials, BVOH is highly durable against general moisture, meaning that it can be used for printing regular objects (which can be dissolved later), as well as being used as a support material.

Making the right choice
That completes our round-up of some of your key 3D printer filament material choices. Successful printing requires you to choose the right one for your job and to use high-quality filament. Doing so will give you the groundwork you need to ensure your printed product delivers the properties you’re after.

Consistency is key so selecting printing filaments that offer consistent quality from spool to spool is key. Likewise checking that the chosen filament has a high tolerance will ensure that it will extrude effortlessly without risk of jamming or clogging in the printer.

*Reference value of raw material.