Over the years, 3D printing has become increasingly common. This technology (also known as additive manufacturing) is now readily available — many public libraries and schools offer 3D printing services at no charge, and 3D printed materials can be easily found. From the automotive and aerospace industries to medicine and food safety, supporting material is either soluble and insoluble, and 3D printing processes are everywhere. But what materials can be 3D printed? Let’s take a look at the various options available.
Many 3D printers rely on Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), which helps product prototypes by layering from the bottom up with heat and thermoplastic filaments. These machines use a variety of materials, both expensive and affordable.
Stereolithography (SLA) is another method of 3D printing, which relies on a UV laser that cures layers in a photo-reactive epoxy resin. It’s more accurate than FDM and is an excellent choice for engineers who might need small features or other detailed work.
In Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D printing, a high-power laser fuses tiny polymer powder particles. Though this 3D printing method won’t be discussed in this article, it’s important to emphasize that various materials exist for all types of additive manufacturing.
Back to Basics with Thermoplastics
There are many options to choose from when looking to 3D print something using plastic, which is likely the most common material used. Plastic is utilized for its versatility and can be applied to various projects, offering anything from shiny and matte textures to projects with unique colors. The post-processing step for 3D printed plastics may be more robust. Still, the affordability and potential strength often outweigh the minor downfalls. Items 3D printed with plastic are created layer by layer with thermoplastic filaments, which include plastic made from:
- Polylactic Acid, or PLA: Biodegradable PLA, produced from corn starch and sugar cane, is a favored 3D printing material because it’s more sustainable than most other materials. It also leads to more robust products overall. PLA is the cheapest material for 3D printing and is used both at home and on larger industrial projects.
- Polyamide. Polyamide is a widespread choice for 3D printing, both at home and industrially, because it is so varied. It’s cheap, includes interlinking and interlocking parts, and can be painted and dyed.
- Polyvinyl Alcohol Plastic or PVA: PVA is used with some frequency because it is low-cost and the material of choice for many in-home printers used more for play. Overall, it lacks strength but is a decent choice for items that aren’t frequently used and for those new to 3D printing.
- Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene or ABS: Makers lean towards ABS because it offers strength through filaments shaped like pasta. It’s sometimes referred to as Lego plastic, comes in an array of colors, and is ideal for at-home 3D printing.
3D Printing with Metal
Metal is the second most popular 3D printing material. Commonly used in additive manufacturing, metal adds speed to the 3D printing process while maintaining an aesthetic nice enough for high-quality jewelry and has a strong enough foundation for industrial applications. When used as a 3D printed material, metal is in dust form. Many kinds of metal can be utilized in 3D printing (well beyond those listed here), including:
- Gold: Gold, primarily used for jewelry, is an interesting (but expensive) choice for 3D printing.
- Titanium: Titanium is an ideal metal for fixtures that must be strong and reliable while also maintaining extreme heat resistance.
- Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is a more affordable metal option often utilized to 3D print cookware, utensils, and objects meant to be waterproof.
A Wide Assortment of Materials
Many materials can be used for additive manufacturing. While some might be more common than others, they are all worth mentioning. The right material can make or break your product, which means you owe it to yourself to explore many of them. Here are a few you may not be familiar with:
- Graphite or Graphene: Because they are strong and conduct heat well, graphite and graphene are excellent materials for 3D printing, especially for devices that require flexibility, since it is arguably one of the most flexible 3D printer materials. This 3D printer material is also very lightweight.
- Carbon Fiber: Carbon fiber is a composite material, which acts as a topcoat on plastic materials to make them stronger. Putting carbon fiber over plastic creates a faster and cheaper material than metal but just as strong.
- Nitinol: This 3D printed material is commonly found in medical technology because it’s highly elastic. As the name suggests, it is a mix of titanium and nickel and can be folded in half while retaining its shape.
- Paper: Although it isn’t useful in applications that require strength, paper is an ideal material for 3D printing, as it gives more life to high-quality prototypes than flat illustrations do. Paper can be used for 3D printing in great detail, is cheap, and easily accessible for all kinds of projects.
Polymers for High Heat Applications
For high heat applications, there are a few polymers that can be used. The following polymers are known for their durability and are easy to 3D print with:
- PEEK, or Polyether ether ketone. Part of the PAEK family, PEEK is used in situations that call for an extremely durable material able to withstand high temperatures.
- PEI, or Polyetherimide. PEI is one of the first high-temperature 3D printer materials. It is a more affordable option and is frequently used for aerospace applications, though it isn’t as strong and has less thermal resistance.
- PPSU/PPSF, or Polyphenylsulfone. This high-temperature, high strength material has no melting point, thanks to an amorphous internal structure. It’s also chemically resistant.
The 3D printing process can vary significantly based on your desired outcomes, but there’s a support material for any project imaginable. Though all require some degree of post-processing, this can vary by material and may be an essential consideration. While this list addresses many, there are endless possibilities that will make a product soar. We hope this blog post has given you a stronger understanding of what materials can be 3D printed.
With digital 3D design and modeling tools, 3D printed projects are easier than ever before. Autodesk’s Fusion 360 provides flexible 3D CAD software that encourages creativity and allows for multiple design iterations.