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.
ABS should be printed on a heated build plate. ABS needs a higher nozzle temperature than most other filaments, with manufacturers typically recommending between 220-260 °C.
Many ABS filaments 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.
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.
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.
PLA and ABS are the two most commonly used 3D printing filaments. Low-cost, widely available, and printable for beginners, most 3D printer users will have used ABS or PLA at some point. But if you want to be sure you’re getting the best results from your 3D printed parts, what are the reasons for choosing these materials?
Both in the thermoplastics class of polymers, ABS and PLA each possess properties that explain their popularity for FFF (fused filament fabrication) 3D printing.
But despite both being ‘go-to’ filaments, understanding their unique properties can help you get the best visual appearance or mechanical performance from your 3D prints.
We’ll go into each material in detail, but first, let’s define the key properties that will guide your choice:
Printability – How easy or difficult is it to print the part you want the first time, with minimal effort?
Stiffness – How well does the material resist bending or deforming when a force is applied
Strength – How much load can it bear without permanently deforming or breaking? (As PLA and ABS have similar tensile strength, this guide focuses on flexural strength.)
Toughness – How well can it resist impacts?
Hardness – How well can it resist abrasion or cutting?
Temperature resistance – How much heat can it withstand while retaining its properties?
Polylactic acid filament, or PLA, is a plant-derived thermoplastic, usually created from corn, that is biodegradable. These environmental credentials, and the fact that it's easy and fast to print, make it an attractive choice for educators and users new to 3D printing.
PLA is often chosen for its aesthetic properties. The melting point of PLA is low (around 145 °C) which is well suited to the FFF 3D printing process. This means that fine details and smooth surfaces can be consistently achieved with PLA prints, making it ideal for architectural models, product prototypes, and educational aids.
PLA offers good hardness and strength, with a flexural strength of 103 MPa. PLA is also exceptionally stiff, which can be good for some applications but also makes it brittle and prone to being chipped or other damage from impacts.
Despite the stiffness and strength of PLA filament, it is worth noting that PLA copes poorly when exposed to heat or chemicals. This makes PLA a much less desirable option for parts intended for repeated use or in environments with changing conditions (such as outdoors).
While we mentioned a higher melting point for PLA, a part will become useless long before the material ‘melts’. In practice, PLA is not suitable for applications where the printed part is exposed to temperatures higher than 50 °C.
This low-temperature resistance can also be an advantage, for example, if you want to burn away the 3D printed material to create a mold.
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