Support materials play a significant role in 3D printing. They make it possible to create complex geometries without significantly affecting the aesthetics of the final printed product. There are a variety of support materials to choose from, each with different advantages.
Why are support materials important?
With FFF (fused filament fabrication) 3D printing, objects are created in layers, from bottom to top. Melted filament passes through the 3D printer’s extruder and builds the printed item, layer by layer. Each new layer requires the layer underneath to support it.
Issues arise when a print design requires an overhang, or an element that’s suspended in mid-air. This is where support materials can help. They create a “prop,” on which the melted filament can be placed. The support material is removed once the print is complete, leaving the printed material intact and in the correct position.
This offers far greater design freedom, enabling the creation of complex geometries, with very few restrictions.
Common uses of support materials
Support materials enable you to create more complicated parts. Architects, for example, can 3D print bolder conceptual designs. Engineers and designers have complete freedom in their designs and are not subjected to the limitations of traditional manufacturing methods, such as milling or molding. Manufacturing aids (such as tools, jigs and fixtures) can be customized to specific tasks. Even complex models with separately moving parts can be printed in one go.
What else should you know?
Basic build material support. If you’re using a single extrusion 3D printer, you will need to create supports with the material your are printing your model in. This is because single extrusion printers can only print with one material at a time. This means your support will adhere well to the model. Prints are also less likely to fail, as there are no compatibility issues. However, it’s more difficult to remove the support material post-print, and the surface quality may be adversely affected.
Breakaway support material. Manually removable support materials, like Ultimaker Breakaway, tend to be used by those printing with dual extrusion 3D printers. They’re a different material to the filament used to create the printed model, easy to remove, and reduce impact on surface quality. However, when you’re working with these support materials, consider compatibility. Specific support materials adhere more effectively to some build materials than others.
This table details which materials are compatible with our Breakaway support material:
✓ Officially supported ⓘ Experimental ✕ Not supported
Soluble support material. Soluble support materials are a popular option for dual extrusion 3D printing. These supports dissolve in water, which means they don’t adversely affect surface quality. They also offer exceptional design freedom. Soluble support material is the favored option for printing moving assemblies or precision end-use parts.
Support blockers. Sometimes, support material is added in holes that could be printed just as well without it. Surface quality is also less important on some parts of a model than others. In these instances, using the 'support blockers' function in Ultimaker Cura is highly effective.
Functionality testing. Always check that your supports can be reached, so they can be easily removed once the print is complete. For example, a section of support that’s stuck inside your model may limit its functionality.
PVA. PVA is the most commonly used soluble support material. It dissolves quickly in water after printing, and even works with highly complex structures. Be aware that PVA attracts moisture, so it’s important to store it properly when not in use.
Here’s a quick run-through of which materials are compatible to use with PVA:
✓ Officially supported ⓘ Experimental ✕ Not supported
Our support material partner
Some higher-engineered applications require a higher temperature or a different type of material that does not bond well with normal PVA. For these applications, Ultimaker works with Infinite Material Solutions, which offers Infinite AquaSys® 120 as a solution.
Infinite Material Solutions
Infinite Material Solutions Infinite AquaSys® 120 is easy to use, as it dissolves rapidly in tap water. It’s also stable up to a 120 °C build chamber temperature, which makes it suitable for engineering thermoplastics.
“PVA is an excellent option for providing support, but AquaSys® 120 offers certain advantages for specific applications. In head-to-head testing, AquaSys® 120 exhibited consistent model material compatibility and excellent dissolution rates,” Larry Doerr, Chief Operating Officer, AND Brandon Cernohous, R&D Supervisor/Production Operations at Infinite Material Solutions, said. “Specifically, AquaSys® 120 dissolved twice as fast as the PVA at room temperature, and up to six times faster at 80°C. And since it dissolves completely in only water – no chemicals required – AquaSys® 120 is also environmentally friendly.”
Infinite Aquasys® 120 is compatible with the following 3D printing materials:
If you’d like to find out more about support materials with preconfigured print profiles for Ultimaker printers, you can find more by browsing the Ultimaker Marketplace.
You can also explore Ultimaker’s range of 3D printers that are compatible with support materials on our website.