A Comparison of 3D Printer Filament Types
What is the best 3d printer filament to use for your 3d printing?
Right now there is a huge selection of 3d printer filament types, and it is only going to grow over the next few years. Fact is, this is a good thing in many ways. That growth in selection and variety means there is more opportunity, more options, more specific niches being served, heck it means there are more colors available!
But with a growth in choice there is a parallel growth in inundation for people who have to make that choice.
How do you narrow down the correct 3d printing filament for YOUR situation? Let’s look at some ways to filter down the massive list of options out there so we can decide the best filament for you.
1. Filament size
First we have to know what type of filament your printer accepts. Not all printers can print with all materials, and the way to start is by looking to see in your printer specifications if it takes 3mm (2.85mm) dimension filament or the more commonly used 1.75mm filament.
In general, while some 3d printers can print with the “wrong” dimension filament, you are going to have the least risk and the best output quality on your 3d prints by going with the correct type. Using the wrong dimension can cause all kinds of problems, from poor-looking results through to clogs and jams.
If you have not chosen your 3d printer yet, you might want to consider availability of the two types of printer filament sizes. When I got an Ultimaker 3 to review I had to purchase 3mm filament for the first time and I found it more expensive and less plentiful locally. Don’t get me wrong, it prints great, but it’s a pain to pay more, have fewer choices, and not be able to use the filament all my other printers accept.
2. What purpose? Match filament type to output intended use
Once you have the filament with the correct dimensions, then you need to work out what your printed items will be used for.
There is a correct filament chemistry for your chosen printed object based around various factors.
Food Safe 3D Printing Filaments
As one example, does your print need to be more food safe and less toxic? Yes, most 3d printing filament should not go anywhere near your food or a child’s mouth. The more you can reduce issues around health and safety the better, if that is the scenario your print will be used in. Not so much if the print will live on a shelf to be admired.
PLA is made out of vegetable matter, so is less toxic than the petrochemical based filament chemistry. However, it could still have additives contained in the mixture, especially if the filament was designed around a target price point rather than to be used in this way. Remember additives are used for things like colour, opacity, and such.
PETG is the type of plastic used in water bottles, so depending on the specific brand and datasheet, that could be the way to go.
The Strongest 3D Printing Filament
Do you need strength in your 3d printed objects? Will the printed piece be used in an industrial setting? Will you be designing and printing car parts? Perhaps it is a toy that will be bashed and crashed around? Or maybe you need something that will support a heavy load?
I have printed super strong objects using nylon filament. That stuff puts up with industrial-strength uses, from brackets through to highly torqued gears. Strength, however, is a loose term. Nylon is strong in that it can be pulled, bent, and bashed, but it flexes. Do you need stiffness or do you need it to hold shape when put under load?
Maybe you want durability but you actually desire flexibility, some elasticity, and a more kind of rubbery feel? Remote control car tires? Perhaps you are printing luggage tags? Or you could be designing cable organising ties? Flexible joints, perhaps? In these cases, while nylon does flex, in fact the most flexible material is TPE and TPU. Brand names include Ninjaflex and Polyflex.
ABS is generally seen as a tough and durable general-purpose 3d printing plastic filament, and it has been joined by a variation of the original formulation called ASA. You might not be at all familiar with the name ABS, or the full scientific name (“Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene”), but you will for sure have used it and touched it many, many times; ABS plastic is the stuff that LEGO is made out of.
When you hurt your foot in the middle of the night stepping on a plastic building brick, you can be sure you just embedded ABS in your skin. You can find ABS all around you, from your car interior to a good portion of your office furniture.
The general nature of ABS does not merely extend to the durability, but also it is superior to many plastics in its ability to resist warm temperatures. Consider the car interior application, you could not use a good looking plastic that melts in an Arizona July. This is also why your printed 3d printer parts might well have been printed using ABS filament.
While ABS has many fans, it also has a lot of people hating on it. Firstly, ABS stinks - it is after all a petrochemical based plastic. It gives off nasty fumes when printing, so really needs good ventilation. Large, flat surfaces often warp off the build plate also, due to ABS behaviour while heating and cooling. You need an excellently sticky and warm build surface to mitigate this, and settings dialed in so you don’t get separation or cracking in layers too.
Printing ABS and nylon is not an option available to everyone due to the heat necessary to extrude. If your nozzle has a PTFE liner then you need to avoid going over 245c to be safe.
Fortunately, given the tricky nature of printing with ABS, ABS is not the only filament that can resist temperature when printed. The new formulation I mentioned above, ASA, was partly introduced to make it easier to print while still gaining the benefits. PETG is also quite resistant to heat, and prints at a lower temperature than ABS and Nylon. In fact Prusa now prints their 3d printer parts using PETG in their 3d printer farm.
3. Price, colour, texture, and opacity
People tend to start here whereas they should start at point one or two! Once you have chosen the correct material, then and only then choose price and aesthetics. That will give you the best outcome for the intended purpose and your 3d printer.
Yes, you can get glow in the dark (famously abrasive on brass printer nozzles) or even wood-infused PLA, but if the output is going to be bent or whacked, then you will need something that will not shatter.
Start with the purpose of your filament, what are you going to print and why. That is the most important consideration. Then, and only then, filter by colours and price!