All printers require ink, and for 3D printers, that “ink” is filament: the material you use to create your 3D prints. All filaments have different properties for use in different applications and can vary greatly. When you are choosing a filament for your 3D printer, it’s important to consider a number of factors, including ABS Filament or PLA Filament?
Different materials are designed for different functions; for instance, some materials are safe when handled, but not for storing food. What the print be used for?
A print that is constantly bearing weight or being handled requires more strength than one that sits on a shelf. How much strength will your print require in its final application?
Not all printers can use all filaments. What material is yours designed to use?
Some filaments are substantially more expensive than others. What does your budget look like?
Certain filaments can pose a hazard in a home setting when printing. Can you safely print with a filament that releases toxic fumes during the printing process? Do you feel comfortable working with the highly toxic chemicals necessary for clearing clogs from other filaments?
Some filaments are easier to find than others. What is available in your area? How quickly do you need it?
The colors available for your print will depend on the type of material that you use. Different materials also have very different finishes. What would you like your model to look like?
Honestly answering these kinds of questions will help you choose which material is most suitable for your specific project as well as which is most practical and enjoyable for you to work with.
While an endless amount of material types can be used in the process of 3D printing, the most common types used in home 3D printers are ABS filament and PLA filament. Both materials are thermoplastics that become malleable when exposed to high temperatures and keep their new shape when cooled down. They are also the only materials a 3D printer that uses fused deposition modeling technology is able to process.
The process used for printing with either material is similar. Both materials are affordable, readily available, and are able to be used in most inexpensive 3D printers. At first glance it might seem like they are both the same, but in reality, ABS and PLA have very different properties and are suited for different applications.
For a beginner, choosing a filament can be difficult, so we’ve put together the following comparison guide to help you decide which material will be best for your projects.
WHAT IS ABS FILAMENT?
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a very common material that has been used for decades to make many things, including drain-waste-vent (DWV) pipes, golf clubs, automotive body parts, golf club heads, and toys. It is well known for its strength and rigidity, and it is a very hard material with a superior gloss.
In 3D printing, ABS has been a popular plastic material from the start. It consistently melts at around 225 degrees Celsius, which is easily achieved with most home printers. It is slightly flexible and has a fairly high “glass transition temperature” (the temperature which causes a plastic to go from its solid state to a pliable consistency where it begins to lose its shape) of approximately 100 degrees.
ABS can also be dissolved in acetone, which is sometimes used to create a smooth finish on a 3D print. When an ABS print is sanded and then wiped with acetone, the outer layer is dissolved, which reduces the visibility of layers. This technique is used to give naturally matte ABS prints a smooth, high-gloss finish.
ABS filament produces fumes as it is being heated. These fumes carry an unpleasant odor and may also be toxic. Melting ABS is suspected to carry health risks for individuals who work around it, and those who have been exposed to fumes commonly report headaches and nausea. Once the piece is cooled, however, it is completely safe to handle.
Another downside to using ABS filament is its tendency to warp. ABS expands and shrinks as it is heated and cooled down again. When ABS prints are cooled too quickly, they can easily curl up and warp. To combat this effect, ABS needs to be printed on top of a heated build plate, preferably in an enclosed build chamber, so that it remains warm during the printing process and can cool slowly when printing is finished.
PROS FOR USING ABS FILAMENT
ABS is a very lightweight material that makes it ideal for prints where weight matters.
ABS is extremely durable, as illustrated by its popular use in automotive parts and children’s toys such as Legos.
ABS is much less brittle than PLA and therefore better suited to applications where the print requires flexibility for its use, or could be bent accidentally.
ABS is stronger than PLA. It can handle quite a bit of abuse, which is why it is commonly used in products such as tools and golf clubs.
HIGH GLASS TRANSITION TEMPERATURE: It takes very high temperatures to cause ABS to lose its shape, making it an easy choice for prints that must withstand higher temperatures.
PLA is naturally glossier than ABS, but only ABS can be finished with acetone for a truly high gloss finish.
CONS OF USING ABS FILAMENT
Printing with ABS filament is smelly at best, and might be hazardous to human health in unventilated areas. Because of the fumes, home printers located in household areas with children and pets may not be suited to producing ABS prints.
Potential for Warping
Additional products need to be purchased to keep ABS at a temperature that prevents warping. Beginners and those who are not used to working with ABS might still find that their pieces curl during cooling.
Though they are recyclable, ABS prints do not biodegrade. They essentially sit in landfills forever when disposed of. Because of this, there are ethical concerns about using materials like ABS for creating disposable items.
Not Considered Safe for Food USE
Plastic leaching is a concern for ABS prints, especially when they are used for warm food or hot liquids. Prints that will store food or drinks need to be post-processed using solvent polishing or food-save painting in order to be used for applications where they will be exposed to food.
ABS filament is generally a little more expensive than PLA filament.
WHAT IS PLA FILAMENT?
Polylactic acid (PLA) is biodegradable and bioactive. The name can be a bit confusing because PLA is not a polyacid; it is a polyester. PLA is derived from renewable natural resources such as corn starch, tapioca, and sugarcane. Like ABS, it is a very common material, and the second most common bioplastic in the world. It is currently used in decomposable packaging materials, disposable tableware, and degradable medical implants. It is strong but lacks flexibility.
In 3D printing, PLA can be melted at a lower temperature of 190 to 210 degrees, making it a great choice for home and office printers. PLA filament is also simply easier to print with than ABS, and is the standard choice for beginners and those printing decorative items.
It naturally has a glossier finish than ABS, but cannot be processed with acetone for a truly high gloss finish the way that ABS can. Actually, the material can’t be dissolved with acetone at all. Sodium hydroxide must be used instead, which is a very dangerous, caustic chemical. Printer nozzles clogged with PLA need to be replaced or cleared with sodium hydroxide, with care given to the choice of the container holding it, as sodium hydroxide readily dissolves many other materials, including some types of glass.
PLA has a lower glass transition temperature of 60 to 65 degrees Celsius, making it unsuitable for applications where a print consistently needs to be exposed to high temperatures. It is also very brittle and cannot be used in prints that require any kind of flexibility.
Because of its decorative application, PLA filament is readily available in every color you could imagine, with special effects choices such as filaments that glow in the dark, change color in sunlight, and contain glitter, also available.
PLA is commonly blended with other materials. Some filaments blend PLA with PHA to increase the strength and flexibility of PLA prints while maintaining its ability to biodegrade. PLA filaments can also be found blended with brick, wood, bamboo, and metals like iron, stainless steel, and copper to add a desired visual affect to a print. The possibilities of blending PLA with other materials are truly endless.
PROS OF USING PLA
PLA filaments are among the least expensive materials available for 3D printing, though ABS filaments only cost slightly more. PLA filaments that have been blended with other materials can also be much more expensive than basic ABS.
Ease of USE
PLA is an easier material to work with than ABS, which makes it a good choice for beginners. It doesn’t warp, and a heat chamber is recommended, but not necessary.
Lower Melting Temperature
Printers do not need to be as hot to print models out of PLA. Lower quality printers that can’t reach higher temperatures, as well as those located in areas where children are present, are better suited to a material that can be melted at lower temperatures.
PLA is biodegradable, making it a more responsible choice for disposable prints.
Endless Color and Material Options
It’s possible to obtain a PLA filament in almost any color, and additional aesthetic options are readily available. Whether you need a piece to sparkle or want your home to smell like a woodworking shop while you print, current PLA filament selections have you covered.
PLA filament creates a sweet smell when melted that some people enjoy. For 3D printers located in the home or areas with little ventilation, PLA filament is a safer, more pleasant choice.
Objects made of PLA are considered safe for storing food or drinks without additional finishing.
CONS OF USING PLA
Low Glass Transition Temperature
Prints made with PLA filament will lose shape and begin to melt at higher temperatures.
Not Dissolvable With Acetone
The chemicals necessary to clear clogged nozzles are dangerous to work with. In addition, PLA filament is more likely to clog nozzle heads because of its lower melting temperature. Individuals printing with PLA will wish to follow all of their printer’s manufacturer protocols, as well as be comfortable working with highly caustic sodium hydroxide or willing to replace nozzles more frequently.
PLA is not flexible and will snap in half if bent. It must be blended with other materials to be used in applications where flexibility is necessary.
PLA is less flexible than ABS and therefore not as well suited for mechanical parts or prints that are handled a lot, such as toys and tools.
Choosing the Best 3D Printer Filament
WHICH ONE IS BETTER?
While everyone has their preferences and opinions, neither material is inherently superior to the other for general applications.
PLA filament is generally considered better for beginners because of PLA’s low melting point, resistance to warping and ease of use. Beginners who use ABS will need to experiment with their printing settings before experiencing desirable printing results.
Common 3D printing uses of PLA include:
- Decorative items
- Disposable items
- Wearable items
- Items used for food
On the other hand, ABS filament is also a good material for 3D printing hobbyists. While it is a bit harder to work with, most printers are capable of using it and hobbyists who are willing to experiment a little bit can still have a great result.
Common 3D printing uses of ABS include:
- Items that need to be exposed to sunlight or high temperatures
- Flexible items
- Mechanical parts for a bigger piece
Both materials have a strong, recognized place in home 3D printing, and which one is best for you comes down to the specific application of your models, as well as your personal preference.