How to Choose the Right Filament
After you pick a 3D printer, the first decision you'll have to make is what type of filament you want to use. There are several dozen varieties—even setting aside the numerous colors they come in. Wading through them surfaces a string of chemical-sounding names: polylactic acid, polyvinyl alcohol, carbon fiber, and the tongue-twisty thermoplastic elastomers, for example. They go by a dizzying variety of acronyms, ABS, PLA, HIPS, CPE, PET, PETT, TPE, PVA, and PCTPE among them. But don't be dismayed by this alphabet soup. Only a few types are in common use, and manufacturers tend to eschew overly geeky monikers in favor of more descriptive names alluding to an essential quality of the filament such as flexibility (NinjaTek's Ninjaflex and Polymaker's Polyflex, for instance) and strength (Makerbot, XYZprinting, and Ultimaker all market filaments called Tough PLA).
Filaments used in 3D printing are thermoplastics, which are plastics (aka polymers) that melt rather than burn when heated, can be shaped and molded, and solidify when cooled. The filament is fed into a heating chamber in the printer's extruder assembly, where it is heated to its melting point and then extruded (squirted) through a metal nozzle as the extruder assembly moves, tracing a path programmed into a 3D object file to create, layer by layer, the printed object. Although most 3D printers have a single extruder, there are some dual-extruder models that can print an object in different colors or with different filament types.
The process of printing with plastic filament is called either fused filament fabrication (FFF) or fused deposition modeling (FDM). They're the same thing; the FDM acronym is trademarked by 3D printing pioneer Stratasys Corp., so other manufacturers created their own names to describe their printers' technology; FFF is the one that caught on. Even today, except in some manufacturers' brochures, you'll see the names used interchangeably.
3D Printing Materials
There are a variety of different materials that a printer uses in order to recreate an object to the best of its abilities. Here are some examples:
- Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): Plastic material that is easy to shape and tough to break. The same material that LEGOs are made out of.
- *Polylactic acid or polylactide (PLA): is a thermoplasticmade from renewable resources such as corn starch, tapioca roots or sugar cane, unlike other industrial materials made primarily from petroleum. Due to its more ecological origins this material has become popular within the 3D printing industry, we have begun to see it in medical applications and in food products.
- Carbon Fiber Filaments: Carbon fiber is used to create objects that need to be strong, but also extremely lightweight.
- Conductive Filaments: These printable materials are still in the experimental stage and can be used for printing electric circuits without the need for wires. This is a useful material for wearable technology.
- Flexible Filaments: Flexible filaments produce prints that are bendable, yet tough. These materials can be used to print anything from wristwatches to phone covers.
- Metal Filament: Metal filaments are made of finely ground metals and polymer glue. They can come in steel, brass, bronze and copper in order to get the true look and feel of a metal object.
- *Wood Filament: These filaments contain finely ground wood powder mixed with polymer glue. These are obviously used to print wooden-looking objects and can look like a lighter or darker wood depending on the temperature of the printer.
The 3D printing process takes anywhere from a few hours for really simple prints, like a box or a ball, to weeks for much larger detailed projects, like a full-sized home.
*Printing Materials we use
*Beyond Plastic Filament: Resin-Based Printing
With today's proliferation of FFF printers, it's easy to overlook the fact that there are models on the market based on other technologies that don't use filament. Chief among them is stereolithography (aka SLA), the first 3D printing technology to have been developed, and which is capable of very detailed, high-resolution prints. Price tags for SLA printers for commercial use can run well into five (and even into six) figures, but we have seen some lower-priced models, suitable for hobbyists and artisans.
* indicates materials we currents use for all of our 3d printing