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How to 3D print with PLA and which materials to choose

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3D printing with PLA filament (polylactic acid) is easy, thanks to its accuracy and reliability. It’s also cost-effective, which is advantageous when making several design iterations or multiple parts. As such, it’s no surprise that this is one of the world’s most popular printing materials.

This guide covers the main benefits of 3D printing with PLA, the different types of PLA material, and how to choose the right filament for your requirements.

Why choose PLA 3D printing?

PLA offers a multitude of benefits. These include:

  • Ease of use

  • Cost – it’s cheaper than other filaments

  • Versatility – it’s suitable for several different applications

  • Eco-friendliness – it’s made from crops such as sugarcane, and is a biodegradable polymer

  • Stiffness and strength

  • Dimensional accuracy

  • A fairly long shelf life

  • Smooth surface – which makes it easy to paint (acrylic or enamel)

  • Limited warping

  • A lower print temperature

PLA can also be mixed with composites and other materials. These give it specialist qualities, such as being able to glow in the dark, or resemble wood.

Which PLA materials are available, and what are their pros and cons?

There’s more than one type of PLA, and each one offers different benefits.

PLA. Regular PLA is the most popular choice, and often comes in a range of different colors.

  • Pros – Stiff, easy to print with, limited warping

  • Cons – Low impact resistance, low chemical resistance, low temperature resistance

PLA+ / PLA plus. These are modified versions of PLA and come in different forms. Typically, an enhanced form of PLA will offer greater impact resistance or better mechanical performance. A good example is Ultimaker Tough PLA, which is ideal for printing functional prototypes and larger tools.

  • Pros – Improved mechanical properties, suitable for more applications

  • Cons – More expensive than regular PLA, typically contain other polymers

Eco PLA. PLA filaments such as Kimya PLA-R are recycled and biodegradable. It’s also suitable for rapid prototyping and making tools.

  • Pros - Easy to use, high-quality surface finish, made of 97% recycled materials, offers good dimensional accuracy

  • Cons - More expensive than regular PLA

Common applications of PLA filaments

PLA is one of the most versatile materials available and is suitable for a range of applications. If you’re 3D printing with PLA filament, here are a few of the best ways to use it.

PLA Schubert packaging machines
Gerhard Schubert GmbH uses PLA+ to create tools for its packaging machines
  • Prototypes. When producing multiple iterations during the prototyping process, it’s important to use a filament that’s affordable, reliable, and easy to use. Idea Reality uses materials such as PLA to create prototypes of its designs, and 3D printing in-house speeds up the process. That means the company can bring products to market far more quickly

  • Models and visual aids. 3D printing with PLA filament can generate a high level of detail, if required. That’s appealing to architects such as Killa Design use it to make to-scale models of their architectural designs. These can be shown to clients to explain complex concepts, or used for education projects

  • Tooling. PLA is well suited to tooling, particularly Ultimaker Tough PLA, which has good dimensional accuracy, and is robust and durable. Companies including Gerhard Schubert GmbH use materials like PLA+ to create new tools for its packaging machines

  • Investment casting. If you’re creating metal parts, investment casting is a cost-effective technique. PLA is the ideal material for this process, as it’s easy to use it to 3D print a mold

Killa design model PLA
Architecture firm Killa Design uses PLA to create scale models of buildings

Common industries using PLA filaments

PLA is one of the most widely used materials, mainly because it’s so versatile. Many industries value 3D printing with PLA, for a variety of reasons. Here are just a few examples:

Heineken tools PLA
Using Ultimaker Tough PLA, Heineken is able to create customized tools for use in its bottling plant
  • Industrial. PLA can be used to create jigs, fixtures and tools. Heineken use Ultimaker Tough PLA to create customized tools for maintenance purposes. As PLA filaments are quick and dependable, this ensures a spare part or tool is ready fast and minimizes any production line downtime

  • Consumer goods. Many businesses in this industry create end-use products with PLA. Florenradica is a design company, and uses Ultimaker PLA to create parts for its clients, such as accessories for bags, shoes, heels, jewelry, and buttons. It’s a good choice of material, as it offers a good finish and a high level of detail. Florenradica also use PLA for prototyping

  • Medical. Models can be printed quickly and easily, then used to explain procedures to patients, or to educate trainee doctors. Boyd Goldie, an orthopedic surgeon, says, “With modern radiology software you can get a virtual model on-screen, but there’s nothing like holding a model in your hands.”

  • Education. Many experts believe that people learn best when they can take part in hands-on – or at least up-close – education. The Netherlands’ national natural history museum, Naturalis Biodiversity Center, uses PLA to recreate missing parts of dinosaur skeletons, providing a previously impossible glimpse of the past to museum visitors

Dinosaur shoulder PLA
A 3D printed shoulder girdle on a T. rex. Skeleton at Naturalis Biodiversity Center. Looking closely, segments are visible, indicating individual prints that have been pieced together

Hardware requirements

If you’re 3D printing with PLA, your hardware will benefit from featuring the following:

  • Heated bed. While not essential, a low-to-moderate temperature will enhance print results through improved adhesion

  • Extruder temperature gauge. The temperature for most PLA filaments should be around 200 °C

  • Cooling fan and enclosure. These features are not essential when printing with PLA, but will give superior results

Choosing your PLA filament type

PLA is the most widely available material on the market for FFF (fused filament fabrication) 3D printing, but quality varies a lot.

Especially if you're printing on an Ultimaker 3D printer, we recommend using either an Ultimaker material or one from the Ultimaker Marketplace. This way you benefit from preconfigured print profiles, reducing setup time and the chance of error when preparing a print job.

  • Ultimaker PLA. This is suitable for a variety of applications, from creating high-detail models, to making mold inserts for investment casting. Most industries can benefit from PLA – it’s great for prototyping and for creating smaller tools

  • Ultimaker Tough PLA. Ultimaker Tough PLA has a toughness similar to ABS. That makes it suitable for printing functional prototypes, mechanical parts, and larger tooling. This type of PLA is more suitable for industrial purposes, or for industries such as aviation and automotive

  • Kimya PLA-R. Kimya PLA-R is ideal for creating finished parts and tools. It’s also a good choice for rapid prototyping. It also has excellent aesthetic qualities, which are beneficial for designers or those creating consumer goods

How to print with PLA filaments

Every PLA filament is different, so we recommend you follow the manufacturer's guidance.

You can read our full guides on how to print with PLA and Tough PLA on our support pages, with information on compatible printers and materials, ensuring good adhesion, and optimizing the print environment.

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