The list of materials that can be printed by a 3D printer will probably surprise you and yet the list is growing by day. The materials range from physical to biological materials. Some of the materials are printable by highly specialized printer and not easily accessible. In this article, I will provide highlights on range or materials that are printable before zooming in on the more common printing materials for beginners.
All materials currently 3D printable
Plastics and its derivatives dominates the list of materials that can are 3D printable at the current moment. The more common plastic materials like PLA, ABS, TPU and wood blend has been the staple in consumer 3D printing world. But increasingly more advanced materials like polycarbonate and thermoplastic are getting into the space as well.
Metals, Composites & Fibres
Metals like steel, aluminum and copper has been 3D printable for quite some time now- albeit in enterprise space. Composites like Nylon and glass blend are catching up. Fibres like carbon fiber, fiber glass steel are putting more excitement into the industry as it multiplies the possibilities with 3D printing. More interestingly, solid state battery can almost be 3D printed now. As soon as solid battery is printable, we can have almost 3D print any consumer electronics. However, these materials are not the best printing materials for beginners to start with.
Through research, there are biological materials that can increasingly be printed to create human cells, tissues and even organ. Bioprinting- as it is called- works the same way as regular 3D printer by depositing the bio materials layer by layer until it achieves the desired results. Development in bioprinting is significant as it can potentially reduce the waiting time for organs and it can also be useful in range of situation. But questions on ethics and privacy remains in this field.
More Commonly Used Materials
The common materials for 3D printer for newbies are plastic. In fact, most- if not all- consumer grade printers can only print plastic. PLA, ABS, PETG and TPU are beginner- friendly plastic filaments for 3D printer. They are widely available and easy to use. The recommended material if you are 3D printing for the first time is PLA.
PLA (Polyactic Acid)
It is the most common FDM 3D printing material alongside ABS. PLA is biodegradable and made from corn starch or sugarcane. It has lower melting point than ABS, generates virtually no smell during printing and can achieve good results. As a result, one of the best printing materials for beginners.
In real -life PLA is widely used as food packaging, household plastic products and medical implants.
ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
It is the plastic of choice in injection molding manufacturing process for plastic materials but also a popular choice in FDM 3D printing. ABS has slightly higher melting point than PLA but it generates plastic burning smell during printing. But generally it is an easy materials to work with and is also tiny weeny bit cheaper than PLA.
ABS has higher tensile strength compared to PLA. In real-life, car plastic parts often uses ABS. And more famously it is material of choice in production of LEGO bricks.
Polyethylene terephthalate glycol is the long name. Most currently in market FDM 3D printers can print this material. PETG is generally used when the physical strength of the printed item is the priority over its shape details. On the other hand, PLA and ABS can print with better details. PETG requires higher temperature on the nozzle and print bed to print successfully but it is usually still within capability of 3D printers in the market.
In practical, PETG is usually the preferred material when printing applications for outdoor use like outdoor flower pots or gardening tools. It is also the material of choice when printing items that prioritize physical strength such as monitor holder or TV bracket.
It is also known as Thermoplastic Polyurethane. It is one of the flexible materials that are 3D printable. The other material is TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer). But by far the most common material at the current time is TPU.
TPU is a blend of plastic and rubber that gives it the flexibility of rubber and the hardness and rigidity of rubber. There are different grades of TPU depending on how flexible/ hard the material is. TPU may be a little bit more challenging to print compared to PLA or ABS. It requires slower print speed and the right temperature depending on the specifications of the printer. Generally speaking, the harder the material is the easier it is to print by using FDM printer. Properly configured Ender 3 v2 is able to print ‘harder’ TPU successfully.
There may be occasions when you want to print with this materials. For example when printing phone casings, coaster or vibration dampeners.
Read my detailed experience with TPU here.