ABS vs. PLA: A Comprehensive Guide

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15 May, 2023

PLA and ABS filament material for 3D Printing

PLA and ABS filament material for 3D Printing

In this article, we have a look at the two most popular filaments in 3D Printing and how they compare against each other.

Introduction

3D printing has revolutionized the way we manufacture objects, giving individuals and industries the ability to create complex and customized parts with relative ease. Two of the most popular materials used in 3D printing are Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic Acid (PLA). Choosing the right material for a particular project is crucial, as it can greatly impact the final product's quality, functionality, and durability.

ABS is a petroleum-based thermoplastic that has been widely used in various industries due to its strength, durability, and resistance to heat and impact. Its properties make it an ideal choice for producing automotive components, electronic enclosures, and functional prototypes. On the other hand, PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugarcane. It has gained popularity in 3D printing for its ease of use, low odor, and environmentally friendly characteristics.

In this article, we will delve into the properties, applications, and differences between ABS and PLA to help users make an informed decision when selecting the appropriate material for their 3D printing needs.

What is ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)?

ABS, or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, is a petroleum-based thermoplastic known for its excellent mechanical properties, making it a popular choice for various applications in 3D printing and other industries. It consists of three monomers, acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene, which contribute to the material's unique blend of characteristics, including strength, toughness, and heat resistance. ABS has been widely used for producing a diverse range of products, such as automotive components, electronic enclosures, and toys like LEGO bricks.

3D printing gears with ABS material

Properties of ABS

The chemical structure of ABS is a result of the polymerization of its three monomers: acrylonitrile, butadiene, and styrene. Acrylonitrile imparts chemical resistance and rigidity to the material, butadiene provides toughness and impact resistance, while styrene contributes to its processability and glossy finish. The combination of these monomers results in a material that exhibits a balance of desirable properties.

ABS exhibits several desirable properties that make it a popular choice for 3D printing applications. Some of these properties include:

  • Lightweight & Durable: ABS has a specific gravity of 1.06 g/cm³, making it a lightweight material. Its tensile strength ranges from 2930 to 48 MPa, and its flexural modulus, a measure of stiffness, is between 1,550 and 2,600 MPa. This combination of strength and rigidity makes ABS well-suited for applications requiring durability and impact resistance.
  • Thermal Properties: One of the key characteristics of ABS is its thermal properties. It has a glass transition temperature (Tg) of approximately 105°C, which is the temperature at which the material transitions from a rigid state to a more pliable, rubbery state. The melting temperature of ABS typically ranges from 200°C to 280°C, making it more heat-resistant than PLA. This higher heat resistance is advantageous for applications where parts are exposed to elevated temperatures or require thermal stability.
  • Chemical Resistivity: Another important property of ABS is its resistance to many chemicals, such as oils, greases, and diluted acids. This chemical resistance makes it an ideal material for use in applications where parts may come into contact with potentially corrosive substances. However, ABS is not completely resistant, and strong acids, bases, or solvents like acetone can cause the material to degrade or dissolve.
  • Glossy Finish: The glossy finish of ABS is one of the reasons why it is a popular choice for 3D printing applications. ABS has a smooth and glossy finish that resembles injection-molded parts. This makes ABS ideal for applications where aesthetics are important, such as consumer products and automotive parts. Additionally, the glossy surface of ABS parts is more resistant to scratches and wear, which further enhances its appeal for certain applications.

Even though ABS exhibits many benefits, it is important to note that its high print temperature makes it difficult to work with and takes a lot longer to print as compared to PLA. It requires higher print bed and extrusion temperatures, while also being susceptible to effects like wrapping and shrinking.

Applications of ABS in 3D printing

The mechanical properties and thermal stability of ABS make it a popular choice for a variety of 3D printing applications, especially where strength and durability are essential. One common use of ABS in 3D printing is the production of functional prototypes. These prototypes need to withstand real-world testing, and ABS provides the necessary strength and toughness to endure such tests. This enables designers and engineers to evaluate the performance and functionality of their designs before moving on to full-scale production.

  • In the automotive industry, ABS is often used for producing various components, such as dashboard panels, wheel covers, and interior trim parts. The material's resistance to heat and impact makes it suitable for applications where parts are exposed to high temperatures, vibrations, or impacts. Moreover, the chemical resistance of ABS allows it to withstand exposure to oils, greases, and other automotive fluids, ensuring the longevity of the components.
  • The electronics industry also benefits from the use of ABS in 3D printing. Electronic enclosures and housings made from ABS provide adequate protection for sensitive electronic components. The material's rigidity and dimensional stability help maintain the shape and integrity of the enclosures, while its insulating properties prevent electrical interference. Additionally, ABS's compatibility with various post-processing techniques, such as vapor smoothing, allows for the creation of enclosures with a professional appearance and surface finish.
  • Another notable application of ABS in 3D printing is the creation of custom and replacement parts for various consumer products. The material's durability, strength, and resistance to wear make it ideal for producing parts that must endure daily use or exposure to harsh environments. For example, ABS can be used to print replacement parts for household appliances, outdoor equipment, or even sporting goods.

The versatility of ABS in 3D printing has led to its adoption across a wide range of industries and applications, from aerospace and medical devices to toys and fashion accessories. Its unique combination of mechanical properties, thermal stability, and chemical resistance makes it an invaluable material for creating durable and functional 3D printed parts.

Pros and cons of ABS

When considering the use of ABS for 3D printing, it is essential to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the material to determine its suitability for a specific application. By understanding the pros and cons of ABS, users can decide when to use it and how to optimize their printing process for this material.

Pros of ABS

  • Strength and durability: ABS offers a high tensile strength and excellent impact resistance, making it ideal for producing parts that need to withstand mechanical stress or prolonged use. Its durability and wear resistance make it suitable for functional components and prototypes.
  • Heat resistance: With a higher glass transition temperature and melting point compared to PLA, ABS is better suited for applications requiring thermal stability or exposure to elevated temperatures. This property enables ABS parts to maintain their shape and functionality in hot environments.
  • Chemical resistance: ABS is resistant to many chemicals, including oils, greases, and diluted acids, which is beneficial for parts exposed to potentially corrosive substances. This resistance can extend the lifespan of ABS components and protect them from degradation in various environments.
  • Post-processing options: ABS can be easily post-processed using techniques like sanding, painting, gluing, or vapour smoothing, allowing for greater customization and improved aesthetics. These options enable users to create professional-looking parts with a high-quality finish.

Glossy surface finish with ABS printing

Cons of ABS

  • Warping and shrinkage: ABS is prone to warping and shrinkage during the 3D printing process, which can lead to uneven surfaces or parts that do not adhere well to the print bed. This issue can be mitigated by using a heated print bed, enclosed print chamber, and adjusting print settings, but it may still pose challenges for some users.
  • Fumes: ABS emits unpleasant and potentially harmful fumes when heated during the printing process. These fumes can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, and may require proper ventilation or air filtration systems to ensure a safe printing environment.
  • Higher printing temperature: ABS requires a higher printing temperature than PLA, typically between 220°C and 250°C. This higher temperature can increase the risk of burns or other safety hazards and may require additional precautions when working with the material. To learn more about printing with ABS and what considerations should be kept in mind, check out this article: ABS Print Considerations
  • Less environmentally friendly: As a petroleum-based material, ABS is not biodegradable and has a larger environmental footprint than PLA. This factor may be a concern for those seeking eco-friendly options for their 3D printing projects.

Understanding the pros and cons of ABS can help determine whether it is the right material for a specific 3D printing application. By considering factors like strength, durability, heat resistance, and post-processing options, as well as the potential challenges of warping, fumes, and environmental impact, professionals can optimize their printing process and choose the material that best meets their project requirements.

What is PLA (Polylactic Acid)?

Polylactic Acid (PLA) is a biodegradable thermoplastic derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, sugarcane, and tapioca roots. This eco-friendly material has gained popularity in the 3D printing industry due to its low environmental impact, ease of use, and compatibility with a wide range of FDM 3D printers. PLA is particularly suited for applications where biodegradability and reduced environmental footprint are essential considerations.

Different colored PLA filaments

Properties of PLA

PLA is a polyester made from the polymerization of lactic acid, a compound that can be produced through the fermentation of plant-based carbohydrates. During the manufacturing process, lactic acid molecules undergo a chemical reaction to form long chains of polylactic acid. The resulting PLA polymer has a semi-crystalline structure, which can be altered by controlling the polymerization conditions and the use of additives.

PLA exhibits several desirable properties that make it a popular choice for 3D printing applications. Some of these properties include:

  • Biodegradability: PLA's plant-based origin and chemical structure enable it to break down into its constituent elements through the action of microorganisms, water, and heat. This biodegradability makes PLA an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics like ABS.
  • Low melting temperature: PLA has a relatively low melting temperature, typically ranging from 130°C to 180°C, making it easier to print with and reducing the risk of heat-related safety hazards. This lower temperature requirement also results in lower energy consumption during the printing process.
  • Good printability: PLA is known for its ease of use and excellent printability, as it adheres well to various print bed surfaces and does not require a heated bed or an enclosed print chamber. Additionally, PLA is less prone to warping or curling compared to ABS, ensuring more consistent and accurate print results.
  • Tensile strength: While PLA's tensile strength is generally lower than ABS, it is still strong enough for many applications, including decorative items, non-functional prototypes, and low-stress parts. PLA's stiffness and rigidity make it suitable for projects where dimensional stability is crucial.
  • Transparency and color options: PLA is available in various levels of transparency, from opaque to translucent, as well as a wide range of colors. This versatility allows for greater customization and aesthetic possibilities in 3D printed objects.

3D Printed Vase with multicolored PLA filament

Although PLA offers many benefits, it is important to note that its lower heat resistance and lower overall strength compared to ABS may limit its suitability for certain applications, particularly those involving high temperatures or mechanical stress.

Applications of PLA in 3D printing

PLA has become a popular material for 3D printing due to its ease of use, low environmental impact, and compatibility with a wide range of 3D printers. Its unique properties make it suitable for various applications, from simple prototypes and decorative items to more complex structures and functional parts. In this section, we will discuss some of the most common applications of PLA in 3D printing.

  • Rapid prototyping: One of the primary uses of PLA in 3D printing is rapid prototyping. Its ease of printing and good surface finish make it an ideal choice for creating prototypes quickly and efficiently. Designers and engineers can iterate and refine their designs without investing significant time and resources in more expensive materials or processes. While PLA may not be suitable for functional testing in all cases, it provides a cost-effective way to visualize and evaluate design concepts. 
  • Architectural models: PLA's dimensional stability, rigidity, and availability in various colors make it an excellent choice for creating architectural models. These models can be used to visualize and communicate spatial relationships, design elements, and overall aesthetics of a building or structure. Additionally, PLA's biodegradable nature makes it a more environmentally friendly option for producing disposable models that may only be used for a short period. 
  • Educational tools and aids: PLA is frequently used in educational settings to create custom tools, aids, and models that facilitate learning and understanding. For example, teachers and instructors can use 3D printed PLA models to explain complex scientific concepts, such as molecular structures or anatomical features. The ability to produce customized educational resources with PLA enables more interactive and engaging learning experiences for students. 
  • Art and decorative items: Artists and designers have embraced PLA as a medium for creating intricate sculptures, decorative objects, and artistic installations. The material's range of colors, translucency, and ease of post-processing make it well-suited for producing visually appealing pieces that can be customized to match specific aesthetic requirements.
  • Low-stress functional parts: While PLA may not be the ideal choice for parts that need to withstand high mechanical stress or elevated temperatures, it is still suitable for creating functional components with low-stress requirements. Examples of such parts include casings, enclosures, or simple mechanical components that do not experience significant forces or temperature fluctuations. PLA's biodegradable nature also makes it an appealing option for disposable or short-term use items.

In summary, PLA's unique properties make it suitable for a wide range of 3D printing applications, from rapid prototyping and architectural models to educational aids and low-stress functional parts. By understanding the material's strengths and limitations, users can optimize their printing process to create high-quality, eco-friendly objects tailored to their specific needs.

Pros and cons of PLA

PLA has gained significant popularity in the 3D printing community due to its unique combination of properties and characteristics. However, it is essential to understand both the advantages and disadvantages of PLA to make informed decisions when selecting a material for a specific application. In this section, we will explore the pros and cons of PLA in detail.

Pros of PLA

  • Easy to print: One of the most significant advantages of PLA is its ease of printing. PLA has a low melting temperature (typically around 180-220°C) and does not require a heated bed, making it compatible with most 3D printers on the market. Its excellent adhesion to the print bed reduces the likelihood of warping or curling, ensuring a smooth and successful print. To learn more about setting the right temperature and bed conditions for printing with PLA, check out this article: PLA Bed Temperature Settings
  • Biodegradable and environmentally friendly: PLA is derived from renewable resources such as cornstarch or sugarcane, making it a more sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics. Furthermore, PLA is biodegradable, which means it will break down under the right conditions, reducing its environmental impact when compared to non-biodegradable materials like ABS. Read more about recycling PLA here: Recycling PLA
  • Good dimensional accuracy and surface finish: PLA's low shrinkage during the cooling process results in high dimensional accuracy and excellent surface finish. This property makes it suitable for creating detailed models, prototypes, and parts that require a high level of precision.
  • Wide range of colors and finishes: PLA is available in a diverse range of colors, translucencies, and even specialty finishes, such as wood, metal, or glow-in-the-dark. This variety allows users to create aesthetically appealing and visually diverse objects tailored to their specific requirements.

Cons of PLA

  • Lower heat resistance: PLA's lower melting temperature can be a disadvantage in certain applications, as it makes the material more susceptible to deformation when exposed to elevated temperatures. This limitation makes PLA unsuitable for parts that need to withstand high heat or operate in hot environments.
  • Lower mechanical strength: Compared to materials like ABS, PLA has lower mechanical strength and impact resistance. This property may limit its suitability for certain applications that require more robust and durable parts, especially those subjected to significant stress, impact, or wear.
  • Limited chemical resistance: PLA has limited resistance to some chemicals, which can cause the material to degrade or lose its structural integrity when exposed to specific solvents or environments. This characteristic may limit PLA's use in applications where chemical resistance is a critical requirement.

In conclusion, PLA offers several advantages, such as ease of printing, biodegradability, and good dimensional accuracy, making it an attractive option for many 3D printing applications. However, its limitations, such as lower heat resistance, mechanical strength, and chemical resistance, should be considered when selecting the appropriate material for a specific project. By weighing the pros and cons of PLA, users can make informed decisions and optimize their 3D printing process to achieve the desired results.

Comparing ABS and PLA

When it comes to choosing the right material for a 3D printing project, both ABS and PLA have their unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. Understanding the differences between these two popular materials is crucial for selecting the most suitable option for a specific application. In this section, we will compare ABS and PLA, focusing on their properties and how they impact the final printed object.

Strength and durability

One of the most critical factors to consider when selecting a material for 3D printing is its strength and durability, as these properties can significantly affect the performance and lifespan of the printed parts.
ABS:

  • ABS is known for its high tensile strength and impact resistance, which makes it an ideal material for applications that require robust and durable parts. Its toughness and resilience allow it to withstand mechanical stress and resist wear over time. ABS has a tensile strength of approximately 42 MPa, while its impact resistance is around 17.7 kJ/m².
  • Due to its toughness, ABS is often used in applications such as automotive components, enclosures for electronic devices, and mechanical parts that need to endure wear, stress, or impact. Additionally, ABS can be easily sanded, drilled, or machined, making it suitable for post-processing and refining printed parts.

PLA:

  • PLA, on the other hand, has lower mechanical strength and impact resistance than ABS. Its tensile strength is typically around 60 MPa, which is higher than ABS; however, it is still considered less durable, amounting to different factors like low impact resistance (approximately 5 kJ/m²), brittle nature, and temperature sensitivity. As a result, PLA is generally considered less durable and robust than ABS.
  • While PLA is sufficient for decorative purposes, its lower impact resistance and mechanical strength may not be suitable for parts that need to withstand significant stress, wear, or impact. However, PLA's good dimensional accuracy and surface finish make it an excellent choice for projects that require precise, high-quality prints with intricate details.

Conclusively, in a strength and durability comparison of PLA vs ABS, ABS would be the preferred choice for applications that require robust, impact-resistant parts, while PLA is better suited for projects that prioritize dimensional accuracy and aesthetics over mechanical strength. Therefore, knowing the distinctions between the strength and durability aspects of ABS and PLA can assist individuals in choosing the most suitable material for their specific 3D printing requirements.

Environmental impact

The environmental impact of 3D printing materials is a significant concern for many users. The choice between ABS and PLA can have varying implications for the environment, as both materials possess different properties and degradation profiles. In this section, we will discuss the environmental impact of ABS and PLA, focusing on their biodegradability, sustainability, and recycling potential.

ABS

  • ABS is a petroleum-based plastic, which means it is derived from non-renewable resources such as crude oil and natural gas. Consequently, ABS has a higher carbon footprint compared to bioplastics like PLA. Additionally, ABS is not biodegradable and can take several hundred years to decompose in the environment.
  • However, ABS can be recycled, which helps reduce its environmental impact. Recycling ABS involves melting the material and reforming it into new products. This process can be repeated several times, effectively reducing the amount of waste generated. Nonetheless, the recycling process requires energy and resources, which can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental concerns.

PLA

  • PLA is a bioplastic derived from renewable resources and the production of PLA consequently generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based plastics like ABS, making it a more environmentally friendly choice.
  • One of PLA's most significant advantages over ABS is its biodegradability. PLA can decompose under the right conditions, such as in industrial composting facilities, where high temperatures (50-60°C) and humidity levels accelerate the process. It can break down into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass within 2 to 3 months. However, PLA does not readily decompose in landfills or natural environments, where the temperature and humidity levels are lower. In such conditions, the degradation process will take somewhere between 6 months to 2 years or more.
  • Recycling PLA is also possible, although it requires specialized facilities due to its unique chemical composition. It is essential to separate PLA from other types of plastics during recycling to prevent contamination and ensure the quality of the recycled material.

In conclusion, when comparing the environmental impacts of ABS and PLA, PLA is generally considered the more eco-friendly option due to its renewable origins, lower carbon footprint, and biodegradability. However, both materials can be recycled, which helps mitigate their overall environmental impact. Users should carefully consider the environmental implications of their material choice and opt for sustainable practices such as recycling or selecting biodegradable materials whenever possible.

Printing Quality

Printing quality is an important factor for any individual working on a 3D print model. Material Properties such as transitioning and melting temperatures are important aspects to consider when choosing a material for the 3D print, as they can drastically affect the extrusion of material and the finish quality of the print.

ABS:

  • ABS has a transition temperature of 105°C and the melting temperature ranging from 210°C to 250°C. These high temperatures make it difficult for the printer to work with ABS material, and the actual print exhibits poor surface finish with visible layering lines. Therefore, ABS may require more post-processing techniques such as sanding, polishing, or vapour smoothing to achieve a smoother surface finish.
  • ABS offers lower detail resolution than PLA and might experience more difficulty with smaller details and fine features owing to its lower stiffness and higher tendency to warp. Additionally, ABS may require a heated bed and an enclosure, or other special adhesion techniques in order to prevent warping and cracking, especially when working on larger parts.

Also, due to high printing temperatures and the warping tendencies, it needs to be printed at a slower speed which increases the overall print time and reduces productivity. To read more about printing speed with ABS, check out this article: ABS Print Considerations

PLA:

  • PLA has a lower transition temperature range of 50-60°C and a melting temperature ranging from 130-180°C. PLA generally has better print quality with a smoother surface finish than ABS. Due to its lower printing temperature and faster cooling time, PLA offers better layer adhesion and, less warping and cracking.
  • PLA has better detail resolution than ABS due to its higher stiffness, which enables it to hold fine details and sharp edges. Additionally, PLA typically outperforms ABS in bridging and overhangs owing to its lower tendency to warp and rapid cooling and solidification. Since it has lower printing temperature and sets quickly, PLA can be printed at elevated speeds that that of ABS, which increases the overall productivity by decreasing the general print time.

In Conclusion, due to lower printing temperature, PLA performs much better than ABS. PLA provides better details and smoother finish while printing at a greater speed. It also has a lesser tendency to fail in overhangs and  bridging than ABS, which requires more support structures and cooling techniques to prevent sagging and deformations in overhangs.

Read more about choosing between ABS and PLA filaments for your project here: PLA vs. ABS and more: Choosing the Right Filament

Tips for printing with ABS and PLA

When 3D printing with ABS and PLA, it is crucial to understand their unique characteristics and requirements to ensure optimal results. This section will provide tips and guidance on preparing the printer and adjusting print settings for these materials, as well as post-processing techniques.

Preparing the printer

Before starting a print with ABS or PLA, it is essential to properly prepare the 3D printer. The following steps will help ensure successful prints with both materials:

  • Bed levelling: Ensure that the print bed is level to achieve good adhesion and consistent layer heights throughout the print. Use the printer's built-in levelling features, or manually adjust the bed using a sheet of paper or feeler gauge to verify the correct nozzle-to-bed distance.
  • Bed surface and adhesion: Different bed surfaces may be more suitable for different materials. For ABS, a heated bed is crucial, with temperatures typically ranging from 80-110°C (176-230°F). Glass, PEI, or BuildTak surfaces can provide adequate adhesion for ABS prints. Applying a thin layer of glue stick, ABS slurry, or hairspray to the bed can also help improve adhesion. On the other hand, PLA does not require a heated bed, but using one can improve print quality and bed adhesion. Recommended bed temperatures for PLA range from 50-70°C (122-158°F). Blue painter's tape, glass, or PEI surfaces are commonly used with PLA. As with ABS, applying glue stick, hairspray, or a specialized adhesion solution can further enhance bed adhesion.

ABS printing with blue tape on heated printer bed for better adhesion

  • Nozzle temperature: Both ABS and PLA have distinct melting points and optimal printing temperatures. For ABS, the recommended nozzle temperature is typically between 220-250°C (428-482°F), while PLA prints best at 190-220°C (374-428°F). However, these values can vary depending on the specific filament brand and additives. Always consult the manufacturer's recommendations and perform test prints to determine the ideal temperature for the filament.

         Recommended reading: Nozzle diameter and Layer Heights Explained

  • Enclosure (for ABS): When printing with ABS, an enclosure is recommended to maintain a stable, warm environment around the print. This helps prevent warping and cracking caused by rapid cooling and temperature fluctuations. Enclosures can be built or purchased for most 3D printer models. PLA, on the other hand, does not typically require an enclosure, as it is less prone to warping and prints at lower temperatures.

Choosing the right print settings

Selecting the correct print settings is crucial for achieving high-quality prints with ABS and PLA. This section will discuss the importance of layer height, infill, print speed, and cooling when working with these materials.

  • Layer height: Layer height significantly impacts print resolution, surface finish, and print time. ABS and PLA can be printed at a wide range of layer heights, with common values ranging from 0.1 mm to 0.3 mm. Lower layer heights yield smoother, more detailed prints but require longer print times. Higher layer heights are faster but may exhibit more visible layer lines and lower resolution. The optimal layer height depends on the desired balance between print quality and print time, as well as the capabilities of the 3D printer.
  • Infill: Infill refers to the internal structure of a 3D printed object. Choosing the right infill percentage and pattern can significantly impact the print's strength, weight, and material usage. For ABS, an infill percentage of 20-50% is recommended for most applications, as higher infill values can provide increased strength and resistance to warping. PLA, being more brittle, may require higher infill percentages of 30-60% to achieve similar strength. Common infill patterns include rectilinear, honeycomb, and gyroid, each offering different strength and weight characteristics.
  • Print speed: Print speed affects the quality, strength, and print time of a 3D printed object. ABS and PLA have different optimal print speeds, influenced by their respective melting points and flow characteristics. ABS typically requires slower print speeds, ranging from 30-60 mm/s, to ensure proper layer adhesion and reduce warping. PLA can be printed at faster speeds, typically between 50-100 mm/s, due to its lower melting temperature and better layer adhesion. However, it is essential to consider the specific filament brand, printer capabilities, and print complexity when determining the optimal print speed.
  • Cooling: Cooling is a critical factor when printing with any material, as it helps solidify the layers and prevent deformation. PLA requires active cooling, typically provided by a part cooling fan, to achieve clean overhangs, sharp edges, and accurate dimensions. The fan should be set to run at 50-100% speed during PLA prints. Conversely, ABS is sensitive to rapid cooling, which can lead to warping and layer separation. Therefore, it is generally advised to disable or minimize part cooling when printing with ABS. If cooling is necessary for specific features or small layers, use the lowest possible fan speed to minimize temperature fluctuations. An enclosed print chamber can also help maintain a stable temperature, reducing the need for part cooling.

Post-processing techniques

Post-processing techniques can significantly enhance the appearance, functionality, and durability of 3D printed parts. This section will discuss various methods, including support removal, sanding, vapour smoothing, and annealing, to improve ABS and PLA prints.

  • Support removal: Support structures are often necessary for complex geometries and overhangs in 3D prints. Removing these structures carefully is essential to maintain the part's appearance and integrity. For both ABS and PLA, use pliers or a deburring tool to remove larger support structures, followed by a fine scalpel or knife to eliminate smaller sections. Be cautious not to damage the print while removing supports.

Support removal of 3D printed model 

  • Sanding: Sanding can improve the surface finish of 3D printed parts by reducing layer lines and roughness. Start with a coarse grit sandpaper, such as 100 or 200 grit, to remove high spots and prominent layer lines. Gradually move to finer grits, such as 400 or 800 grit, to achieve a smooth surface. Wet sanding is particularly useful for PLA prints, as it helps prevent the material from melting due to friction heat. For ABS, dry sanding is generally sufficient.
  • Vapor smoothing: Vapor smoothing is a post-processing technique primarily used for ABS prints to achieve a smooth, glossy surface finish. The process involves exposing the printed part to acetone vapors, which partially dissolve the outer layer of the ABS and smoothens the surface. Place the ABS part in a sealed container with a small amount of acetone, ensuring the print does not come into direct contact with the liquid. Allow the part to sit in the vapors for a few minutes, then remove it and let it air-dry. However, vapor smoothing can result in slight dimensional changes, so it may not be suitable for parts requiring high precision.
  • Annealing: Annealing is a heat treatment process that can improve the mechanical properties and dimensional stability of 3D printed parts. It involves heating the printed part to a specific temperature below its glass transition temperature, holding it for a period, and then allowing it to cool slowly. For ABS, heat the part to approximately 100°C for 30-60 minutes, then allow it to cool gradually. For PLA, the annealing temperature is around 60-80°C, and the part should be held at this temperature for 15-30 minutes before cooling. Annealing can cause some warping or distortion, so it may not be suitable for parts with tight tolerances. However, when applied correctly, annealing can increase part strength, heat resistance, and durability.

To learn more about post-processing 3D Prints, check out this article: The Ultimate Guide to 3D Print Post-Processing Techniques

Choosing the right material for your project

Selecting the appropriate material for a 3D printing project is crucial to achieving desired outcomes in terms of aesthetics, functionality, and durability. The choice between ABS and PLA depends on various factors, including project requirements, printer capabilities, and environmental considerations. This section will delve into identifying project requirements and matching them with the properties of ABS and PLA.

Identifying project requirements

Before choosing a material, it's essential to identify the specific requirements of the project. This process involves assessing the part's intended function, desired appearance, required strength, and any special considerations, such as heat resistance or biodegradability. Begin by evaluating the following factors:

  • Functionality: Consider the primary function of the printed part. Is it a structural component, a decorative piece, or a prototype for testing? For example, if the part must bear loads or withstand some level of stress, ABS may be more suitable due to its higher strength and durability. On the other hand, PLA is a suitable choice for parts with low mechanical stress requirements such as decorative elements.
  • Aesthetics: The desired appearance of the final part can also influence material choice. If a smooth, glossy finish is desired, ABS with vapour smoothing may be the best option. However, if the project requires a wide range of color options or a matte finish, PLA may be more suitable.
  • Strength and durability: Evaluate the strength and durability requirements of the project. ABS has higher impact resistance, and durability compared to PLA, making it a better choice for parts that will be subject to mechanical stress, wear, or outdoor exposure.
  • Special considerations: Some projects may have unique requirements that necessitate specific material properties. For example, if heat resistance is crucial, ABS, with its higher glass transition temperature of approximately 105°C, may be the preferred choice over PLA, which has a glass transition temperature around 50-60°C. Conversely, if biodegradability is a priority, PLA, derived from renewable resources and compostable under industrial conditions, is the better option.

Cost and Availability

When choosing between ABS and PLA for a 3D printing project, it's important to consider not only their respective properties and performance but also factors such as cost and availability. The availability of materials may vary depending on the region, manufacturer, and supplier, while the cost can be influenced by factors such as market demand, production costs, and material quality.

  • Cost: In general, PLA is known to be slightly more affordable than ABS. This price difference can be attributed to the lower production costs of PLA, which is derived from renewable resourcesHowever, it's essential to consider that the price of materials can fluctuate due to market factors and the quality of the product. While PLA may be more cost-effective for certain projects, the price difference may not be significant enough to outweigh the benefits of using ABS, especially when strength and durability are critical factors.
  • Availability: Both ABS and PLA are widely available materials in the 3D printing industry, but their availability may vary depending on the location, supplier, and specific product requirements, such as color, grade, or special additives. When selecting a material, it's important to research and compare different suppliers to find one that offers the desired material at a competitive price, meets the required specifications, and has a reliable supply chain.
  • Material quality: High-quality materials typically yield better printing results, with fewer defects and more consistent performance. When comparing materials, it's crucial to pay attention to factors such as the filament diameter consistency, the presence of contaminants or impurities, and the manufacturer's reputation for quality control. Investing in high-quality materials can ultimately save time and resources by reducing the likelihood of failed prints and improving the final product's performance.

In conclusion, when deciding between ABS and PLA for a 3D printing project, it's essential to weigh the factors such as project requirements, material properties, cost, availability, and material quality. By carefully considering these factors, it's possible to make an informed decision that results in a successful, high-quality 3D printed part.

Assessing Long-term Performance

The long-term performance of printed parts is another crucial factor to consider when deciding between ABS and PLA for a 3D printing project. Factors like mechanical strength, durability, environmental resistance, and biodegradability can significantly impact the lifespan and functionality of the final product.

  • Durability: Durability is a vital factor when assessing long-term performance, as it directly relates to the print's ability to maintain its functionality over time. While PLA is known for its stiffness and rigidity, it is more prone to becoming brittle over time, especially when exposed to environmental factors such as UV radiation. In contrast, ABS has a greater resistance to degradation from UV exposure and maintains its ductility over a more extended period. It also has high mechanical strength and is able to withstand impacts and wear over time, making it a more suitable choice for outdoor applications or parts subjected to repeated use.
  • Environmental resistance: The resistance of a material to environmental factors such as heat, moisture, and chemicals is a critical consideration in assessing long-term performance. ABS has a higher glass transition temperature (Tg) compared to PLA, typically around 105°C, which means it can withstand higher temperatures before deforming. PLA has a lower Tg, around 60°C, making it less suitable for applications involving high temperatures. Moreover, ABS exhibits better resistance to chemicals, making it more appropriate for parts that may come into contact with chemical substances.
  • Biodegradability: Biodegradability is an aspect that can be both advantageous or disadvantageous depending on the desired lifespan of the part. For short-term applications or products designed to be eco-friendly, PLA's biodegradability would be a desirable characteristic. However, for long-lasting parts or those that need to maintain their structural integrity over an extended period, ABS may be a more appropriate choice due to its resistance to degradation.

By considering the aforementioned factors, users can better assess the long-term performance of ABS and PLA in their 3D printing project. Ultimately, understanding the impact of these factors on the printed parts will help them make an informed decision that results in a successful, high-quality final product.

Recommended reading: Selecting the right material for 3D Printing

Conclusion

In conclusion, both ABS and PLA have unique characteristics that make them suitable for different 3D printing projects. ABS offers higher mechanical strength, durability, and resistance to environmental factors, making it an excellent choice for parts that need to withstand stress, impact, or wear. On the other hand, PLA provides ease of use, better dimensional accuracy, and biodegradability, which can be advantageous for projects that require precision or eco-friendliness.

When selecting the right material for a 3D printing project, it's essential to consider factors such as project requirements, cost and availability, and long-term performance. By carefully evaluating these factors, users can make a  better decision in choosing the material that will result in a successful, high-quality final product.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: Can I use both ABS and PLA in the same 3D printing project?

A: While it is technically possible to use both materials in a single project, it is generally not recommended due to their differing properties, such as melting temperatures and chemical compatibility. Combining the two materials may result in poor adhesion between layers and reduced overall performance.

Q: Is ABS or PLA more suitable for beginners?

A: PLA is typically considered more beginner-friendly due to its lower printing temperature, minimal warping, and ease of use. The material's biodegradability also makes it a more eco-friendly choice for those new to 3D printing.

Q: What other materials can be used for 3D printing?

A: In addition to ABS and PLA, there are numerous other materials available for 3D printing, such as PETG, Nylon, TPU, and various composites. Each material has unique properties and is suitable for specific applications. Researching and experimenting with these materials can help you identify the best option for your project.

Q: How do I store ABS and PLA filaments properly?

A: Proper storage of 3D printing filament is crucial for maintaining print quality and material performance. Both ABS and PLA should be stored in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. It is also recommended to use airtight containers with desiccants to prevent moisture absorption, as this can affect print quality and cause nozzle clogs.

 

References

1. Comparison of PLA and ABS Printing Parameters. (2016). University of Waterloo. https://uwaterloo.ca/chemical-engineering/sites/ca.chemical-engineering/files/uploads/files/comparison_of_pla_and_abs_printing_parameters.pdf

2. FormLabs. Formlabs 3D Printing Materials Library [Internet]. Formlabs. 2023. Available from: https://formlabs.com/uk/materials/

3. Giang K. PLA vs. ABS: What’s the difference? [Internet]. Hubs. 2023. Available from: https://www.hubs.com/knowledge-base/pla-vs-abs-whats-difference/

4. Madeleine P. PLA vs ABS: Which Material Should You Choose? [Internet]. 3Dnatives. 2023. Available from: https://www.3dnatives.com/en/pla-vs-abs-which-material-080820224/#

5. Moya, J. A. (2018). Comparative study between PLA and ABS for the 3D printing of anatomical models for surgical applications. 3D Printing in Medicine, 4(1), 8. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41205-018-0036-4

6. Tan, P. L., Wong, S. C., & Khor, K. A. (2018). A Comparative Study of PLA and ABS in Material Extrusion Desktop 3D Printing. Materials Today: Proceedings, 5(9), 19522-19527. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matpr.2018.06.334

7. Toor R. How Much Does 3D Printing Filament Cost? Pricing Factors [Internet]. https://www.filamentive.com/. 2023 [cited 2023 May 9]. Available from: https://www.filamentive.com/how-much-does-3d-printing-filament-cost-pricing-factors/

8. Tymrak, B. M., Kreiger, M. A., & Pearce, J. M. (2014). Mechanical properties of components fabricated with open-source 3-D printers under realistic environmental conditions. Materials & Design, 58, 242-246. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.matdes.2014.01.051

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