20240408-The Ultimate Guide to Materials Used in 3D Printing

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12 Apr, 2023

Materials used in 3D Printing

Materials used in 3D Printing

Beginners are often confused by the plethora of material options available for 3D Printing. In this article, we explore the different materials available and how their unique properties influence their utility.

Introduction

3D printing has revolutionized the way we create objects, from everyday items to complex structures. As this technology continues to advance, it becomes increasingly important to understand the variety of materials used in 3D printing. These materials not only define the properties and appearance of the final product but also influence the printing process itself. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the world of 3D printing materials, delving into their properties, applications, and how to choose the right material for your project. From plastics and polymers to metals, ceramics, and beyond, this article will provide you with the knowledge you need to make informed decisions when working with 3D printing technology.

1. Overview of 3D Printing Materials

3D printing materials play a crucial role in determining the success of a print, as they directly affect the final product's properties, appearance, and performance. With the rapid development of 3D printing technology, a wide range of materials has emerged, each with unique characteristics and benefits. To better understand these materials, it is helpful to categorize them based on their properties.

Learn more about popular 3D Printing materials here: Popular 3D Printing Materials and their properties

Some common categories of 3D printing materials include:

  • Plastics and Polymers
  • Metals
  • Ceramics
  • Bio-based Materials
  • Specialty Materials

In the following sections, we will delve into each category, examining the most popular materials used in 3D printing and their distinct properties and applications.

1.1. History of 3D Printing Materials

The history of 3D printing materials is closely linked to the evolution of 3D printing technology itself. When 3D printing first emerged in 1981, the materials available were limited. Early 3D printing processes, such as Stereolithography (SLA), utilized photosensitive liquid resins. As technology advanced, new materials were developed to meet the demands of various industries and applications.

The introduction of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology in 1988 by S. Scott Crump marked a significant milestone, as it enabled the use of thermoplastics in 3D printing. This development paved the way for a wider range of materials, including metals and ceramics, to be used in 3D printing processes such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS).

Today, the selection of 3D printing materials is vast and continues to grow, driven by innovations in material science and the expanding capabilities of 3D printing technologies.

2. Plastics and Polymers

Plastics and polymers are the most commonly used materials in 3D printing, particularly in Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) and Stereolithography (SLA) processes. These materials offer several advantages, such as ease of use, affordability, and versatility. The range of plastics and polymers available for 3D printing has expanded significantly over the years, with each material offering unique properties that cater to different applications and requirements. In this section, we will explore some of the most popular plastics and polymers used in 3D printing and discuss their properties and uses.

2.1. PLA (Polylactic Acid)

Polylactic Acid, or PLA, is a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from renewable resources such as cornstarch, sugarcane, and tapioca roots. It has become a popular choice for 3D printing due to its ease of use, low odor, and environmentally friendly nature.

Polyactic Acid (PLA) Material Reels

Some key properties and characteristics of PLA include:

  • Low melting temperature (170-180°C), making it easy to print with
  • Good layer adhesion and minimal warping, resulting in high-quality prints
  • Available in a wide range of colors and finishes

PLA's primary drawbacks are its low heat resistance and limited strength compared to other materials. However, its user-friendly nature makes it an excellent choice for beginners and those looking to create prototypes, decorative items, and non-functional parts.

2.2. ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, or ABS, is a petroleum-based thermoplastic widely used in the manufacturing of consumer products. ABS is known for its strength, durability, and resistance to heat and impact, making it a popular choice for functional parts and prototypes.

Some key properties and characteristics of ABS include:

  • Higher melting temperature (200-250°C) compared to PLA
  • Good mechanical properties, such as strength and toughness
  • Can be smoothed and finished using acetone vapor treatment

ABS can be more challenging to print with due to its tendency to warp and emit unpleasant fumes during the printing process. However, with proper ventilation and a heated build platform, ABS can produce high-quality, functional parts suitable for various applications, including automotive components, toys, and electronic enclosures.

Read up more on the differences of PLA and ABS and how to choose the correct plastic filament for your project here: PLA vs. ABS and More - Choosing the right filament.

2.3. PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol, or PETG, is a copolymer of PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) and glycol. PETG combines the ease of use and environmental friendliness of PLA with the strength and durability of ABS, making it an attractive option for a wide range of applications.

Some key properties and characteristics of PETG include:

  • Good layer adhesion and minimal warping
  • Strong and flexible, with excellent impact resistance
  • High transparency and glossy finish

PETG can be more challenging to print with than PLA due to its higher melting temperature (around 260°C) and sensitivity to moisture. However, with proper storage and print settings, PETG can produce high-quality prints suitable for functional parts, outdoor applications, and food-safe containers.

Learn more about how PLA is upgraded to PLA+ and how this improved material differs from PETG here: PETG vs. PLA+

2.4. TPU/TPE (Thermoplastic Polyurethane/Thermoplastic Elastomer)

Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) and Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) are flexible, rubber-like materials used in 3D printing to create parts that require elasticity, shock absorption, or a soft touch. These materials are ideal for applications such as gaskets, seals, phone cases, and wearable devices.

Some key properties and characteristics of TPU/TPE include:

  • High elasticity and flexibility, allowing for parts to be stretched and compressed without breaking
  • Excellent resistance to abrasion, wear, and tear
  • Good chemical resistance to oils, greases, and some solvents

Printing with TPU/TPE can be challenging due to their flexible nature, which may cause issues with extrusion and feeding. However, with the right settings, slow printing speeds, and a well-tuned printer, TPU/TPE can produce durable, flexible parts with a unique feel and performance.

2.5. Resins

Resin materials are used in Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), and other vat polymerization 3D printing processes. These materials are liquid photopolymers that harden when exposed to UV light, creating solid, high-resolution prints. Resins are available in a variety of formulations, each designed for specific applications and properties.

3D Printing with Resin Material

Some key properties and characteristics of resins include:

  • High resolution and surface quality, making them ideal for intricate details and smooth finishes
  • Wide range of formulations, including rigid, flexible, heat-resistant, and biocompatible options
  • Can be post-processed through curing, sanding, and painting to achieve the desired finish

Resin 3D printing can be more challenging and time-consuming than FDM printing due to the post-processing requirements and the need to handle uncured resins carefully. However, the high-resolution results and versatile material options make resin-based 3D printing an attractive choice for applications such as jewelry, dental models, and prototypes requiring fine details.

3. Metals

Metal materials have gained significant traction in 3D printing, particularly for applications that require high strength, durability, and heat resistance. Metals are commonly used in processes such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS), and Electron Beam Melting (EBM). These processes create complex, high-quality metal parts that are difficult or impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing techniques. In this section, we will explore some popular metal materials used in 3D printing and discuss their properties and applications.

3D Printing using Metals

3.1. Aluminum

Aluminum is a lightweight metal with excellent strength-to-weight ratio, corrosion resistance, and thermal conductivity. These properties make it a popular choice for 3D printing aerospace components, automotive parts, and heat sinks.

Some key properties and characteristics of aluminum include:

  • Low density, resulting in lightweight parts
  • Good thermal and electrical conductivity
  • Excellent corrosion resistance and anodizing potential

Aluminum can be challenging to 3D print due to its high reflectivity and thermal conductivity. However, with the right 3D printing process and parameters, it can produce strong, lightweight parts suitable for various applications.

3.2. Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is a widely used material in 3D printing, known for its strength, corrosion resistance, and biocompatibility. This material is ideal for applications such as medical devices, tooling, and functional prototypes.

Some key properties and characteristics of stainless steel include:

  • High strength and hardness
  • Excellent corrosion resistance
  • Good biocompatibility, making it suitable for medical and food-related applications

3D printing with stainless steel can be challenging due to its high melting point and the need for support structures to avoid deformation during the printing process. With the right support and process control, stainless steel is capable of producing high-quality parts with excellent mechanical properties.

3.3. Titanium

Titanium is a high-performance metal used in 3D printing for applications that demand strength, lightweight, and corrosion resistance. It is commonly used in the aerospace, automotive, and medical industries for components such as implants, turbine blades, and heat exchangers.

Some key properties and characteristics of titanium include:

  • High strength-to-weight ratio, making it ideal for weight-sensitive applications
  • Excellent corrosion resistance, even in harsh environments
  • Biocompatible and well-suited for medical applications

3D printing with titanium requires specialized equipment and careful process control due to its high reactivity and melting point. However, the unique properties of titanium make it an attractive choice for advanced applications that require strength, durability, and lightweight properties.

3.4. Inconel

Inconel is a family of nickel-based superalloys known for their excellent heat and corrosion resistance, making them suitable for extreme environments and high-temperature applications. Inconel is commonly used in the aerospace, automotive, and energy industries for components such as turbine blades, exhaust systems, and heat exchangers.

Some key properties and characteristics of Inconel include:

  • Exceptional heat and corrosion resistance
  • Good mechanical properties at high temperatures
  • High resistance to oxidation and carburization

3D printing with Inconel can be challenging due to its high melting point, which leads to rapid work hardening. But due to these properties, Inconel can be used to manufacture components with remarkable performance in high-temperature and corrosive conditions provided the correct equipment and operation control.

Read in more detail about printing with metals here: 3D Printing with Metals

4. Ceramics

Ceramic materials are becoming increasingly popular in 3D printing due to their unique properties, such as high strength, heat resistance, and electrical insulation. Ceramic materials are used in various 3D printing processes, including Stereolithography (SLA), Digital Light Processing (DLP), and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). They are commonly employed in industries such as electronics, aerospace, and medical devices for applications that require high-performance materials with specific properties. In this section, we will explore some popular ceramic materials used in 3D printing and discuss their properties and applications.

4.1. Zirconia (ZrO2)

Zirconia, also known as zirconium dioxide (ZrO2), is a high-performance ceramic material used in 3D printing for applications that require exceptional strength, wear resistance, and biocompatibility. It is commonly used in dental prosthetics, cutting tools, and aerospace components.

Dental Application of Zirconium 3D Printing

Some key properties and characteristics of zirconia include:

  • High strength and toughness, making it resistant to wear and impact
  • Excellent thermal stability and resistance to thermal shock
  • Biocompatible, making it suitable for medical and dental applications

The high sintering temperature of zirconia (between 1400°C and 1600°C) can make 3d printing with it a challenging task and the material also need post-processing, such as polishing, etc. Therefore, in order to get an outstanding print of high quality and good mechanical characteristics, zirconia needs to be treated carefully the 3d process must be control regulated.

4.2. Alumina (Al2O3)

Alumina, also known as aluminum oxide (Al2O3), is a widely used ceramic material in 3D printing due to its excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties. It is commonly used in electronic components, insulators, and wear-resistant parts.

Some key properties and characteristics of alumina include:

  • High hardness and wear resistance
  • Excellent thermal and electrical insulation properties
  • Good chemical stability and resistance to corrosion

3D printing with alumina requires specialized equipment and careful process control due to its sensitivity to moisture. Having high sintering temperatures (of up to 1700 °C) makes alumina a tricky material to operate with. Due to this reason, the selection of the right equipment and parameters is very important if the user wants to produce parts with exceptional thermal and electrical insulation properties utilizing this material.

4.3. Silicon Carbide (SiC)

Silicon carbide (SiC) is a high-performance ceramic material used in 3D printing for applications that require excellent thermal conductivity, heat resistance, and mechanical strength. It is also used in the semiconductor, aerospace, and automotive industries for components such as heat exchangers, bearings, and nozzles.

Some key properties and characteristics of silicon carbide include:

  • High thermal conductivity and heat resistance
  • Excellent mechanical strength and hardness
  • Good chemical stability and resistance to corroding

3D printing with silicon carbide can also be challenging in a similar way to Alumina, owing to its high sintering temperature (which lies in the range of 1860°C-2000°C) and the need for support structures to avoid deformation during the printing process. But as with other difficult materials, with proper control and regulation during the printing process, silicon carbide can still be used to create parts with outstanding performance in high-temperature and corrosive environments.

4.4. Glass Ceramics

Glass ceramics are a unique class of materials that combine the properties of both glasses and ceramics, making them suitable for various 3D printing applications. They are produced by controlled crystallization of specific glass compositions, resulting in a fine-grained, highly crystalline microstructure. In this section, we will explore the characteristics of glass ceramics, their 3D printing processes, and potential applications.

Glass ceramics exhibit a combination of properties from both glasses and ceramics, such as:

  • High mechanical strength: Glass ceramics often possess superior mechanical strength compared to traditional glasses, making them suitable for load-bearing applications.
  • Low coefficient of thermal expansion: They exhibit a low coefficient of thermal expansion, which ensures dimensional stability under temperature variations.
  • Excellent thermal shock resistance: Glass ceramics can withstand rapid temperature changes without cracking or breaking, making them ideal for high-temperature applications.


5. Bio-based Materials and Composites

Bio-based materials and composites are gaining attention in the 3D printing industry due to their sustainability, unique properties, and potential applications in various fields, such as medical, environmental, and consumer products. These materials are derived from natural sources or are designed to mimic biological structures, offering unique characteristics and reducing the environmental impact of manufacturing. In this section, we will explore some popular bio-based materials and composites used in 3D printing and discuss their properties and applications.

3D Bio Printing

5.1. PLA-based Composites

Polylactic acid (PLA) is a widely used bioplastic in 3D printing, derived from renewable sources like cornstarch and sugarcane. PLA can be combined with various fillers to create composite materials with enhanced properties, such as increased strength, thermal resistance, and improved aesthetics.

Some key properties and characteristics of PLA-based composites include:

  • Improved mechanical properties compared to pure PLA
  • Enhanced thermal resistance and dimensional stability
  • Environmentally friendly and biodegradable

3D printing with PLA-based composites requires careful temperature control and fine-tuning of printing parameters to ensure optimal material performance. These composites can be used in a wide range of applications, from functional prototypes to consumer products and packaging.

5.2. Cellulose-based Materials

Cellulose, a natural polymer found in plant cell walls, is another bio-based material that can be used in 3D printing. Cellulose-based materials, such as cellulose acetate and nano cellulose, offer unique properties like biodegradability, low density, and excellent printability.

Some key properties and characteristics of cellulose-based materials include:

  • Lightweight and low density
  • Biodegradable and renewable
  • Good printability and surface finish

3D printing with cellulose-based materials may require specialized equipment and careful process control to ensure optimal material performance. While these materials can be used in various applications, from paper-like structures to flexible electronics and biodegradable packaging, caution must be observed as the printed samples have lower moduli, strength and exhibit elongation before breaking .

5.3. Bio-inks

Bio-inks are a class of bio-based materials specifically designed for bio-printing applications, where living cells, growth factors, and biomolecules are combined with a printable hydrogel to create complex tissue structures. These materials enable the fabrication of 3D tissue constructs for applications such as drug testing, tissue engineering, and regenerative medicine.

Some key properties and characteristics of bio-inks include:

  • Biocompatibility and support for cell growth and differentiation
  • Tunable mechanical properties to mimic native tissue
  • Printable at low temperatures and pressures to protect living cells

Specialized bio-printing equipment is essential for printing using bio-inks and a strict process control is essential to maintain cell viability to achieve the desired tissue structure. Bio-inks are a promising area of research in the field of 3D bio-printing and have the potential to revolutionize healthcare and medicine.

5.4. Natural Fiber Composites

Natural fiber composites are a category of bio-based materials that combine natural fibers, such as wood, bamboo, or flax, with a polymer matrix to create lightweight, strong, and sustainable materials. These composites can be used in 3D printing to produce parts with unique aesthetics and improved mechanical properties compared to pure polymers.

Some key properties and characteristics of natural fiber composites include:

  • Lightweight and high strength-to-weight ratio
  • Sustainable and eco-friendly, using renewable resources
  • Unique aesthetics, mimicking the appearance of natural materials

3D printing with natural fiber composites requires careful control of printing parameters and stringent temperature regulation to ensure optimal material performance and prevent nozzle clogging. These materials can be used in a wide range of applications, from consumer products and furniture to automotive and aerospace components.

 6. Specialty Materials

Specialty materials are a diverse category of 3D printing materials designed to provide unique properties and functionalities for specific applications. These materials range from conductive filaments to shape memory polymers and are used in industries such as electronics, aerospace, and medical devices. In this section, we will explore some popular specialty materials used in 3D printing and discuss their properties and applications.

6.1. Conductive Filaments

Conductive filaments are specialty materials designed for 3D printing electronic components, such as circuits, sensors, and antennas. These filaments are typically composed of a polymer base, like PLA or ABS, infused with conductive materials like carbon black or metal powders.

Some key properties and characteristics of conductive filaments include:

  • Electrical conductivity, enabling the creation of functional circuits and components
  • Compatibility with common 3D printing processes, like FDM
  • Customizable electrical properties through the adjustment of infill density and layer height

The conductive filaments requires careful process control to mitigate the risks of short circuits during printing and to ensure optimal electrical performance of the finished product. These materials are ideal for rapid prototyping of electronic devices and the creation of integrated electronics within 3D printed parts.

6.2. Magnetic Materials

Magnetic materials are specialty 3D printing materials that exhibit magnetic properties, enabling the creation of custom magnets, magnetic actuators, and sensors. These materials are typically composed of a polymer base infused with magnetic particles, such as iron or neodymium.

Some key properties and characteristics of magnetic materials include:

  • Magnetic properties, enabling the creation of custom magnets and magnetic components
  • Compatibility with common 3D printing processes, like FDM
  • Customizable magnetic strength through the adjustment of particle concentration and orientation

3D printing with magnetic materials provides unparalleled magnetic performance but requires meticulous control during printing to prevent damage to the printer or the printed parts. These materials are ideal for creating custom magnets, magnetic actuators, and sensors in various Electro-Mechanical applications.

6.3. Shape Memory Polymers

Shape memory polymers (SMPs) are a unique class of specialty materials that can change shape in response to external stimuli, such as heat or light. SMPs are used in 3D printing to create complex structures with programmable shape transformations, enabling applications like self-assembling devices, soft robotics, and biomedical implants.

Some key properties and characteristics of shape memory polymers include:

  • Programmable shape memory behavior, allowing the creation of complex shape transformations
  • Compatibility with various 3D printing processes, like SLA, DLP, and FDM
  • Customizable shape memory properties through the adjustment of material composition and processing parameters

The overall process of 3D printing with shape memory polymers requires careful monitoring of the process control and proper material selection to achieve the desired shape memory behavior. These materials offer exciting possibilities for creating advanced structures and devices with unique shape-changing capabilities.

6.4. Self-Healing Materials

Self-healing materials are a category of specialty materials that can autonomously repair damage, such as cracks or scratches, in response to external stimuli like heat, light, or chemicals. These materials are used in 3D printing to create parts with improved durability and longevity, especially in applications where maintenance or repair is challenging or expensive.

Some key properties and characteristics of self-healing materials include:

  • Autonomous repair of damage, improving the durability and longevity of printed parts
  • Compatibility with various 3D printing processes, like SLA, DLP, and FDM
  • Customizable self-healing properties through the adjustment of material composition and processing parameters

These materials offer the promising potential to increase the quality of 3D-printed parts and to increase their durability and damage tolerance due to their (on-demand) dynamic nature. 

Learn more about functional filaments and which filament suits your needs here: Functional Filaments

 7. Choosing the Right Material for Your Project

Selecting the appropriate 3D printing material for your project is essential to ensure the success and functionality of the final product. The choice of material should be based on factors such as the desired mechanical properties, aesthetics, cost, and required post-processing techniques. In this section, we will discuss key considerations and provide guidance on how to choose the right material for your 3D printing project. For a more detailed guide regarding how to select the best material for your 3D Print, check out this article: Selecting the right material for 3D Printing

7.1. Assessing the Mechanical Properties

The mechanical properties of the 3D printing material directly impact the performance and durability of the printed part. Consider the following factors when assessing the mechanical properties of a material:

  • Strength and stiffness: Determine the load-bearing capacity and resistance to deformation required for your application.
  • Flexibility and toughness: Evaluate the need for flexibility or impact resistance, particularly for parts subject to dynamic loading or bending.
  • Thermal and chemical resistance: Consider the material's ability to withstand the intended operating environment, including temperature extremes and exposure to chemicals.

7.2. Considering Aesthetics and Surface Finish

The appearance of the printed part is another important factor to consider, particularly for consumer products or parts that require a high-quality finish. Some key aspects to consider regarding aesthetics and surface finish include:

  • Color and texture: Select a material that offers the desired color and texture options, or consider post-processing techniques like painting or polishing to achieve the required appearance.
  • Layer resolution and print quality: Choose a material and printing process that can achieve the desired level of detail and surface finish, particularly for parts with intricate geometries or fine features.
  • Transparency or translucency: For parts that require transparency or translucency, select a material with the appropriate optical properties, such as clear resins for SLA printing.

7.3. Evaluating Cost and Availability

The cost and availability of 3D printing materials can significantly impact your project's budget and timeline. Keep the following factors in mind when evaluating cost and availability:

  • Material cost: Compare the costs of different materials, considering not only the material itself but also the required printing process and post-processing techniques.
  • Material availability: Ensure that the selected material is readily available from reliable suppliers to avoid delays or sourcing challenges during your project.
  • Printer compatibility: Verify that the chosen material is compatible with your 3D printer or consider partnering with a 3D printing service provider that offers the required material and process.

7.4. Post-Processing Requirements

Post-processing techniques can significantly impact the final properties, appearance, and cost of a 3D printed part. Consider the following factors when selecting a material and evaluating the required post-processing:

  • Support removal: Assess the need for support material and the ease of removal for the chosen material and printing process.
  • Surface treatments: Determine if additional surface treatments, such as smoothing, polishing, or painting, are necessary to achieve the desired appearance or functionality.
  • Post-curing or annealing: Evaluate if the material requires post-curing or annealing to optimize its mechanical properties or dimensional stability.

By considering these factors and evaluating the available material options, you can choose the right 3D printing material for your project, ensuring optimal performance, appearance, and cost-effectiveness. 

Read more about post-processing in detail here: Post Processing 3D Prints

Conclusion

3D printing has revolutionized the manufacturing landscape by offering rapid prototyping, customization, and complex geometries. The choice of materials used in 3D printing is crucial to the success of any project, as it directly affects the final product's performance, appearance, and functionality. From plastics and polymers to metals, ceramics, and specialty materials, a wide range of options cater to various applications and industries. By carefully considering factors such as mechanical properties, aesthetics, cost, and post-processing requirements, you can make an informed decision to choose the right material for your 3D printing project, ensuring success and optimal results.


Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  1. What are the most common materials used in 3D printing?
     The most common materials used in 3D printing include plastics and polymers, such as PLA, ABS, and PETG. Plastic is quite versatile and is being used for everything from 3D-printed household fixtures to toys. They are easy to operate with and also come in several different colors. It can also be used to print transparent models.
  2. How do I choose the best material for my 3D printing project?
     To choose the best material for your 3D printing project, consider factors such as mechanical properties (strength, stiffness, flexibility, and thermal and chemical resistance), aesthetics and surface finish, cost and availability, and post-processing requirements.
  3. Can I use multiple materials in a single 3D print?
     Yes, some advanced 3D printers support multi-material printing, allowing you to use multiple materials in a single print. The designer can develop practical and visually appealing prototypes by combining several materials in a single section. This can also be useful for creating parts with complex geometries, integrated electronics, or varying mechanical properties.
  4. Are 3D printed parts as strong as traditionally manufactured parts?
     The strength of 3D printed parts depends on the material used, the printing process, and the part's design. In some cases, 3D printed parts can be as strong or even stronger than traditionally manufactured parts. However, factors like layer adhesion and print orientation can impact the strength of 3D printed parts.
  5. What are some common post-processing techniques for 3D printed parts?
     Common post-processing techniques for 3D printed parts include support removal, surface treatments (smoothing, polishing, or painting), and post-curing or annealing to optimize mechanical properties or dimensional stability.

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