Comparing 3D Printing Materials

The best 3D printing material for any job is mainly dependent on the desired application. 3D printing materials offer attributes ranging from superior mechanical properties to texture and color realism.

Thermoplastics

Thermoplastics are used in many different applications, from consumer goods to production parts, and make up some of the most popular 3D printing materials. 3D printed thermoplastics are ideal for industrial applications like rapid prototyping, tooling, and production parts.

A wide variety of thermoplastic materials are available, including low-cost, biodegradable, and high-performance options. Many are tough and rigid but lightweight, making them cost-effective alternatives to metal. Others, like TPU, are rubberlike and durable.

Common thermoplastic materials:

  • ABS

    Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene is a thermoplastic polymer. It’s a lightweight, tough, and inexpensive plastic that can withstand high temperatures. ABS is used in many industries for a large range of applications, from children’s toys to injection molding.

  • PLA

    PolyLactic Acid is a translucent, rigid polyester derived from renewable sources like plant starches. Because it is low cost, biodegradable, and available and many colors, it’s often used for fast prototyping and concept design.

  • Nylon

    Nylon material is extremely tough and durable, and has a high flexibility-to-strength ratio. It has excellent impact resistance and good chemical resistance, which allows it to be used in many industrial applications, including functional parts.

  • Flexible materials

    Flexible thermoplastics blend rubber and hard plastic, allowing for a material with the properties of both. These materials, referred to as TPE (Thermoplastic Elastomer) or TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane), are extremely durable and flexible, and are used for functional parts in both consumer and industrial applications.

Daihatsu Motor Company uses ASA thermoplastic material to 3D print custom “effect skins” for their vehicle

China Eastern Airlines uses high-performance ULTEM™ 9085 resin material for final use parts like these flight bag supports.

Metals

3D printing metals offers an alternative to traditional metal manufacturing techniques. Technologies such as DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) use high powered lasers to sinter fine metal powder into a solid object. This allows for highly complex metal parts that wouldn’t be possible with traditional machining.

Common metals used in 3D printing include typical industrial metals like stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium, as well as precious metals like gold and sterling silver.

Alternatively, metal powder can be added to plastic for composite filaments. These filaments can be printed with a traditional 3D printer, creating final parts with the appearance and weight of metal.

Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber is up to five times stronger than steel at less than half the weight, and is in high demand for industries like aerospace and automotive.

For 3D printing, carbon fiber is most commonly used to reinforce a base material, often a thermoplastic like nylon. This creates a composite material that can be used to make extremely strong, lightweight parts.

Utah Trikes uses Nylon 12CF (carbon fiber-reinforced) material to 3D print functional prototypes and final parts.

Support Material

Support structures are an essential part of 3D printing, as they allow for more complex design geometries, overhangs, or hollow parts.

Several different types of support materials are available, and the best one for a job depends on the build material used. Breakaway support material must be manually removed as part of post-processing, while soluble support materials dissolve in water or a chemical solution after the part is printed.

Photopolymers

Photopolymers are acrylic-based resins that are 3D printed layer-by-layer and cured with a UV laser.

3D printing with photopolymers creates accurate, high resolution parts, even with complex design geometries. Photopolymers are also ideal for achieving smooth, even surfaces.

In combination with PolyJet technology, 3D printed photopolymers can produce highly detailed models, such as heart models for the medical industry. Characteristics that add to realism, like color accuracy, flexibility, or transparency, can also be achieved with PolyJet technology.

LAIKA animation studio uses PolyJet materials to model characters, helping to create their signature stop-motion animation.

3D printing materials aren’t limited to this list – there are options to suit every need and application out there. With the right material, a 3D printed part can be stronger than steel, biocompatible, or vibrantly colored. Don’t restrict yourself with traditional manufacturing. With 3D printing, leverage materials engineered to work with your applications.

Ready to learn more about the highest quality 3D printing materials? Visit the Stratasys materials page to explore each material in detail.