3D printing is a versatile technology. Using it, you can create a wide variety of specialized applications in a wide variety of specialized materials. But before getting started, it’s important to understand what these materials are, what they can do, what they are made of – including plastics, resins, and powders – as well as what results you can expect when using them with your 3D printer.
In this guide, we cover:
What can you do with a 3D printer?
What is 3D printer filament made of?
Printer settings explained
Common 3D printer filaments (PETG, TPU, ABS, PLA)
Metal and wood 3D printing materials
Filament, resin, and powder compared
What can you do with a 3D printer?
FFF 3D printing, or fused filament fabrication, is an additive manufacturing process in which thermoplastic material is pushed through a heated nozzle to create objects layer by layer. Key applications for FFF 3D printing include:
Manufacturing aids. With faster lead times than outsourcing and a wide
range of engineering materials, FFF 3D printing is used widely in manufacturing
industries. 3D printers deliver rapid tooling and replacement parts to maintain
maximum uptime and productivity on the production line. And they are used to
flexibly create end-use parts, such as bespoke quality gauges or small batch
first runs, to speed up time to market of a product
End-use parts. 3D printing can also be used to produce low-volume, customized end-use parts. This offers greater flexibility, enabling businesses to run small batches of parts without the risks involved of manufacturing a larger batch. There’s also scope for "printing on the spot" and creating products for the customer while they wait
Prototyping. Low-cost materials and short lead times make FFF 3D printing ideal for the iterative design process. 3D printed prototypes can be visual – parts that look close to a finished product – or functional – parts that are capable of being tested for technical performance
Education. Affordable and easy-to-use FFF hardware enables a variety of education applications – from engaging younger students with STEAM basics to providing production labs for college and university students to work on engineering projects and develop skills for the modern workplace
A 3D printed end-use part – the nozzle on a movie effects snow machine
A 3D printed prototype – testing a tablet holder device
What is 3D printer filament made of?
The process of creating 3D printing filament is called "compounding". First, raw plastic resin is produced in the form of pellets. These can be mixed with additives to alter the properties.
The mixture is then dried, extruded to the desired width (usually 1.75 or 2.85 mm), and wound on a spool. Once wound, the material is ready to be used in 3D printing.
Settings for 3D printing materials explained
The properties of every material are different. So are the characteristics of every 3D printer on the market – size, enclosure, nozzle type, and many more features will affect how a material prints. The characteristics of your print job will also have an effect, such as your desired print speed or the geometry of your part.
Loading filament on an Ultimaker 3D printer
The next sections of this guide offers basic advice on how to print with some of the most widely used filaments.
Recommended print settings are given as a general guideline for FFF 3D printers and we advise to always check the manufacturer’s recommendations before printing. (If you’re printing with Ultimaker materials, more detailed guidance can be found on our support pages.)
This will help you compare materials and make some choices about which material is best for your chosen application. With a platform like Ultimaker, software comes with preconfigured printing profiles for our printers and materials, with the option to add hundreds more for third-party filaments via our Marketplace. All you need to do is choose your desired speed, quality, or application, and preconfigured profiles take care of the rest.
Ultimaker offers the benefits of a seamless platform, but you can also use third-party materials
What is PETG?
PETG is a 3D printing material that combines the advantages of PLA and ABS filaments. It is tougher than PLA, with high impact strength, mechanical strength, and some flexibility. It also offers temperature, chemical, and wear resistance. When printed, it gives a glossy finish.
In terms of its uses, PETG is a great all-round material to have on hand. Its resistance to wear and harsh environments makes it suitable for creating tools, other end-use parts, and functional prototypes. This versatility makes it easy to scale and standardize across an organization – meaning fewer configuration changeovers and greater productivity.
How to print with PETG
A typical extrusion temperature range for a PETG filament is 225-245 °C. While a heated build plate is not essential for all PETG filaments and printers, it is highly recommended to ensure adhesion and print quality.
What is TPU?
TPU is a semi-flexible material that can be used in a wide variety of engineering applications where performance is more important than aesthetic qualities. TPU is an ideal 3D printing material when durability and flexibility are essential, as it features exceptional wear and tear resistance, and rubber-like flexibility.
You will often see TPU filaments with names that include two letters and a number – for example Ultimaker TPU 95A. This refers to the material’s hardness on a measuring scale known as the Shore scale. So in this case, the filament rates 95 on the Shore A hardness scale.
How to print with TPU
When 3D printing with TPU, most filament manufacturers recommend a nozzle temperature around 220-240 °C. Build plate temperatures can vary, so check the manufacturer’s recommendation. For best adhesion, it is often advised to apply a thin layer of glue to the build plate. A low relative humidity is also recommended to prevent moisture uptake.
If you want to avoid the trial and error that can come with trying to get the right print settings, Ultimaker filaments and those in our Marketplace come with preconfigured printing profiles for Ultimaker printers.
A 3D printed PETG part, showing the smooth and glossy surface finish
TPU's flexibility make it ideal for this pack spinner, which must withstand impact while not damaging products on the line
What is ABS?
ABS is a good choice for creating functional prototypes and end-use parts. It is often one of the first materials people try when they start 3D printing for more technical applications due to its good mechanical and thermal properties.
How to print with ABS
ABS should be printed on a heated build plate. ABS needs higher nozzle temperature than most other filaments, with manufacturers typically recommending between 220-260 °C.
Many ABS filament can be prone to warping when printed, although Ultimaker ABS is specially formulated to minimize this. Additionally, ABS prints best when it is enclosed on all sides, as it can be prone to delamination.
What is PLA?
PLA is one of the most common FFF 3D printing materials. It prints reliably with high dimensional accuracy and a quality surface finish. This makes it an ideal material for a range of visual applications – from detailed prototypes to education models.
How to print with PLA
PLA prints at moderate temperatures, mostly around 190-210 °C. For the build plate, a temperature around 50-60 °C is ideal for heated build plates, but it is also possible to print PLA on a cold build surface.
Click here for a deeper discussion on ABS vs PLA.
A functional part 3D printed with ABS
A visual prototype in two colors, printed in PLA
What's the difference between PLA and PLA+?
Over time, several material products based on PLA have come to the market offering the easy printing experience of PLA filaments combined with additional properties. This is usually done through special additives to create a blend based on PLA.
While some PLA-based filaments do indeed offer extra properties, such as Ultimaker Tough PLA, be sure to do your own research before deciding if a PLA+ filament is right for your needs.
Does the manufacturer promise superior visual quality? Check photographs of their prints to compare results. Does it claim to offer better mechanical properties? Check the material technical data sheets to be sure this claim has been tested.
The chemical composition of a filament should also be made clear in the manufacturer’s data sheets. Checking what a particular PLA+ is made of will also help you understand its true characteristics.
What is metal 3D printer filament?
Metal 3D printing filament is an FFF filament type made of a metal-polymer composite.
Metal 3D printer material can also be made of aluminum alloys, cobalt-chrome superalloys, inconel (nickel alloys), precious metals such as silver or gold, stainless steel, and titanium alloys. These are more commonly used with powder 3D printing techniques.
How to 3D print with metal
There are multiple ways of printing with metal. For FFF, you will need a metal-polymer composite material. Your 3D printer must also have an appropriate build plate with a temperature between 45-60°C, a specialized hardened extruder nozzle (such as steel or ruby), and a cooling fan.
For other 3D printing technologies such as SLM or DMLS, you will use metal powder. The printer’s build chamber will be filled with an inert gas, which reduces oxidation and enables the chamber to reach the desired temperature. Metal powder then is applied to the build plate. A laser scans the component’s cross-section, fusing the metal particles together to create each layer. When the first layer is complete, another layer of metal powder is applied, and the process is repeated. After printing, leftover powder must be disposed of safely.
A metal-polymer composite part, printed with BASF Ultrafuse 316L filament
Wood-based 3D prints used in an architectural model
What is wood 3D printer filament?
Wood 3D printer filament is filament made out of a polymer-wood composite. Typically, PLA is combined with wood fiber, or cork. A variety of wood 3D printing filaments are available, such as those made from bamboo and pine. 3D printing with wood filament results in a final print that looks and feels like wood.
How to 3D print with wood
Wood 3D printer filament can be printed with similar settings to PLA. Note that a higher nozzle temperature can cause the printed wood to appear darker, as this will burn the wood in the filament. A larger nozzle than 0.4mm is also recommended, as this will help prevent clogging. While in theory wood filament should not be as abrasive as a material like carbon or glass fiber, it is still recommended to use an abrasion-resistant nozzle to be safe.
It is also important to note that there are many more types of 3D printer filament than those listed in this blog, such as ASA, Nylon, PP, TPE, PA, and copolyester. Many of these are covered in our other guides, including wear, temperature, and impact resistant materials, plus ESD-safe, flame retardant, and flexible filaments.
In the materials section of our website, you can browse a wide selection of Ultimaker materials and other filaments with specialized properties that are compatible with our printers.
What is support material?
Support materials literally ‘support’ a part during the printing process if its geometry would make it otherwise impossible to print. This support material needs to be removed before the print can be used.
Soluble support materials like PVA and HIPS are dissolvable, which means there is no risk of damaging the part’s surface as can happen when removing supports manually. PVA support material dissolves in water, while HIPS requires D-limonene solvent.
A material like Ultimaker Breakaway is manually removed. If you are in a hurry to start using your print, this is faster than waiting for material to dissolve. You can read more in our complete guide to support materials.
A gearbox printed with dissolvable PVA support material
After the PVA support material has been dissolved
Filament, resin, and powder compared
Materials come in different forms, depending on the 3D printer technology:
Filaments for FFF printers
Resin for SLA (stereolithography) and DLP (direct light processing)
Powder for fusion technologies like SLS (selective laser sintering)
What is a resin 3D printer?
The most common form of resin 3D printer uses SLA technology to create parts. SLA uses UV-curable resin as a raw material. The resin is poured into a glass-bottomed container, into which a build platform is submerged. A UV laser shines UV light on the resin to selectively harden it into a horizontal layer of the CAD data which forms the part. The platform then raises out of the container, allowing the uncured resin to level out. This process is repeated until a complete object is formed.
What is a powder 3D printer?
The most common form of powder 3D printer uses SLS technology to create parts. SLS uses a powdered raw material, typically a polymer. The powder is stored in a container, where a recoating blade distributes a thin layer of material onto the build area. A high-powered laser fuses the small particles of material together, in order to form a single horizontal layer of the CAD data. The container then moves a fraction of a millimeter to start a new layer, and a recoating blade swipes across the build area to deposit a new layer of raw material. Unfused powder is recycled by sieving and mixing the sieved powder with unused powder. The process is repeated until a complete object is formed.
The Ultimaker S5 Material Station stores filament in optimal conditions and automatically loads the next spool
SLS 3D printing involves removal of leftover powder material when a print is finished
You can learn more about FFF, SLA, and SLS 3D printing technologies – and the differences between them – by reading our dedicated blog on the subject.
Want to know more?
We hope you found this guide to the basics of 3D printing materials useful.
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