3D printing materials are available in a wide variety of plastics, and choosing the right one depends what type of printer you are using and the application the finished piece will be used in, among other things. Our customers ask all the time, “what material should I be using?” And while we love an easy solution, the answer is never as simple as we would like. Your options range from basic polymers to exotic, high-strength ones. While having options is great, it can make choosing the best one for your application a bit more complicated. We’ve compiled this 3D Printing Materials Cheat Sheet to help you understand which material might be the best suited for your needs.
ABS is the family of materials that our 3D printers start out with. LEGOs and your Xbox controller are all made out of ABS. It’s a cheap, quality plastic for basic prototyping. The low cost of ABS makes it a great choice for tooling and fixtures that won’t see temperatures above 100°C, or come in contact with any harsh chemicals.
In our 3D printing FabLab, we typically opt for ASA over ABS because it is a little bit stronger, UV resistant, and has a nice surface finish.
Nylon is an awesome material because it has highly sought after properties. For example, Nylon can bend and flex a great deal without breaking and it has great chemical and temperature resistance. Nylon has been used in engineering-grade applications specifically because of these properties for years. It is perfect for snap-fit joints, or fixtures that will get thrown around and beaten up. It will withstand more abuse that ABS materials because it is on the softer side of polymers and a bit flexible.
One thing I have noticed in printing Nylon on both our Fortus 450 and printing some nylon varieties on my at-home RepRap printer are that the level of consistency and quality in the filament is much, much different. When I buy nylon material for my at-home 3D printer, the filament often arrives wet and has to be dried out. This creates a lot of headaches that are avoided when you use a Fortus-level machine. The filament on the Fortus is kept in an air-tight canister and is printed in a temperature and moisture-controlled environment. This leads to much higher quality parts, stronger parts, and consistent results.
Polycarbonate is one of the building blocks of bullet-proof glass, which speaks volumes for the toughness of materials that we can 3D print with! This material is more rigid than Nylon while offering similar chemical and temperature resistance. I tend to favor PC over Nylon for applications where the rigidity of parts is the driving factor. When looking at these engineering-grade materials, you really have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis. PC is a great fit for functional prototypes, framing applications, and tooling that needs to withstand high forces and temperatures.
Ultem, or PEI, is an incredibly strong, high-temperature and highly chemical-resistance plastic. We offer a few different blends of Ultem depending on your application. If you need parts or tooling that can deal with chemicals as hazardous as gasoline or temperatures around 200°C, this material is your best bet. Ultem is used heavily in aerospace and high-end automotive applications for tooling, fixtures, and end-use parts.
Hopefully, this cheat sheet is helpful for anyone trying to better understand 3D printing materials. Each one has a special place where it works best.
Stay tuned as we will be covering PolyJet materials in an upcoming blog posting!