3D Printer Material: You can print with these materials

The number of additive manufacturing techniques in 3D printing has been growing steadily. More and more materials are available to choose from. In Berlin, for example, you can even get 3D-printed candy. The decisive factor for the right 3D printer material is the intended use. All variants have their specific strengths and weaknesses. The second factor to consider is the hardware: Not every printer can handle every 3D printer material.

3D printer material: A general overview

Materials for 3D printing are:

  • Plastic (ABS, PLA, PETG, ASA, Nylon, TPE/Flex, PVA, HIPS, etc.).

  • Metal (aluminum, titanium, copper, gold, stainless steel, nickel, etc.)

  • Ceramics / Clay

  • Paper

  • Wax

  • Sandstone / Plaster

  • Resins

  • Other materials (cells, chocolate, fruit gum, food)

General: Which 3D printer material is suitable for which application?

Plastics are of particular importance as a 3D printer material, especially in the processing industry and in the private sector, because there are plastics with all conceivable material properties and they are mostly very cheap and readily available. In addition, high-quality functional models can be produced from plastics. Metals, on the other hand, are mainly used in the fine arts, in the development for printing prototypes, in industry for highly complex machine components and for jewelry production. However, they are also gaining relevance in research - especially for space travel. Ceramics are common in manufacturing and art, paper and sandstone are hot for full-color 3D printing (including textured fancy designs and concept models), SLA resins are popular in model and figure printing, and widely used with wax to make molds for dentures and custom jewelry.

3D Printer Material Plastic

Plastic is the most important 3D printer material. However, the singular is actually incorrect. That's because there are an almost infinite number of different plastics with a wide variety of properties - and prices. There are five reasons for the success of plastic as a 3D printing material:

  • Cost: Plastic -apart from high-performance plastics such as PEEK, PPSU or PEI/Ultem- is inexpensive compared to other materials. It is readily available, as are the printers that can process it, making it ideal for low-volume production.

  • Comparability: designers and developers can only learn from prototypes if the models are as similar as possible to the final products. And although the object stress limits, surface appearance and internal object structure may be different in a different manufacturing process (e.g. injection molding), it is still very advantageous to use the material in the 3D printer that will later be used to make the series product.

  • Variety: The fact that there are many plastics with a wide variety of properties means that they can be used for almost any conceivable purpose. 3D printers with full metal hot ends can handle all plastics whose printing temperature is below 300°C, printers with Teflon tubes in the hot end can print materials up to approx. 240°C (above 240°C Teflon slowly softens and emits harmful gases in the process!), only printers without heating beds are limited to PLA and at most TPE. Some special printers that have heating beds that reach up to 200°C can even print high-performance plastics up to 500°C.

  • Experience: since plastic is the most popular 3D printer material, comparatively many people have experience with it. It is also relatively easy to find tips for the best possible printing on the web.

  • The optimal printing method for plastics is selective laser sintering (SLS). However, due to the high costs, it is only useful in a professional environment.

3D Printer Material Metal

Metal as a 3D printer material has made an impressive career in recent years. It is used in aerospace research, medicine, and the automotive industry, and has now surpassed the traditional CNC machining process, particularly for workpieces and components produced in very small quantities - especially for highly complex designs. In the medium and long term, it is likely to become just as important as plastic for small-scale production. Metals such as aluminum, titanium, gold, Inconel, nickel, copper, silver or stainless steel allow complex models to be created without additional welding, which would never be possible to produce using the traditional CNC process. Post-processing is also much less time-consuming. The susceptibility to defects also decreases as a result.

Although metal 3D-printed parts are not quite as hard and resilient as parts milled from a solid block of metal using the traditional CNC process, the 3D printing process can produce complex parts in one piece that previously could only be made by welding multiple CNC pieces - and the weld, unfortunately, is always the weak point.

So far, it's been the high cost that has prevented the wider use of metal as a 3D printer material. Printers cost between 80,000 and 800,000 euros, depending on the design and technology. Although there have been experiments with liquid metal 3D layer printing, the process is far from mature and can only print very crude, geometrically highly constrained objects. Typically, metal 3D printers are so-called SLS/SLM/DMLS (Selective Laser Sintering/Melting or Direct Metal Laser Sintering) printers, which apply powder of plastic, glass, ceramics or even metal layer by layer, and then melt (SLM) or fix (SLS) it with a very powerful laser at the appropriate points for later sintering. These also have the advantage that they can print completely arbitrary geometries, even the most filigree structures, since the unmelted powder serves as a support. The only thing that poses a problem for SLS/SLA are closed cavities, since these enclose the unmelted powder.

Metal printing with FFF printers

What is currently on the rise is FFF printing with metal powders bonded with a polymer, which you then sinter in a blast furnace (1400°C or more) so that the plastic volatilizes and the metal particles combine to form a sintered metal object. Another approach relies on inkjet-like nozzle technology to fix the metal particles in place with an applied resin before also firing the printed object in the blast furnace. Very innovative in this area is, for example, the U.S. manufacturer Desktop Metal or Digital Metal from Sweden, HP has also announced a related metal printing technology called "Metal Jet". Chemical giant BASF has even developed a filament called Ultrafuse that can be used in a standard 3D FFF printer to print so-called "green bodies", which must then be sintered in a blast furnace.

Note: Metal-containing filaments, as you can get them in our store (e.g. Ampertec Metal, Formfutura Metalfil or ColorFabb Copperfil) are not suitable for metal printing! This is an admixture of metal particles to a plastic (usually PLA), with which optics and sometimes also weight of metal is imitated - other physical properties such as hardness, extreme temperature stability, unbreakability, extreme longevity, resistance to solvents or conductivity are not given with it, because the metal is also after printing only in powder form added to the plastic. The temperatures for melting metal are much too high for normal FFF printers. These filaments are also not suitable for subsequent sintering in a blast furnace, since the carrier plastics used are not designed for this.

3D Printer Material Ceramics / Clay

Ceramics have become a serious 3D printer material in the manufacturing and art industries. 3D printed coffee mugs, for example, are part of the repertoire of virtually every 3D printing service you can find online. However, ceramic as a material has two drawbacks that need to be considered for mass production. First, post-processing is costly: Also called "green bodies," the objects must be fired in a kiln after printing. Second, ceramics are fragile. This considerably reduces its applications - for example, to tableware or medical technology. The great advantage of (fired) ceramics is their appearance, hardness and temperature stability. Objects printed and fired from this material look impressive and are also suitable for show purposes .

3D Printer Material Paper

To be able to print with paper, for example, the Selective Deposition Lamination (SDL) process is necessary, perfected by the manufacturer Mcor, other names are LOM (Laminated Object Manufacturing) or LLM (Layer Laminated Manufacturing). In this process, each sheet of paper is laminated with adhesive at the points of the object, and a high-precision blade (or laser) cuts the outlines from the sheet. With the blade technique, there is the additional option of printing the edge of the object in full color using the familiar inkjet technique. This makes full-color 3D models possible.

Since the edge is removed only after the end of printing and thus acts as a support, there is also no problem with unclean undersides or overhangs with the technique.... Paper feels similar to wood as a 3D printer material. However, this material has two disadvantages: First, paper is not particularly durable. Second, due to its principle, it cannot be printed as precisely as with other techniques. Consequently, 3D paper printing is suitable for little more than visually beautiful prints, hard resilient parts are not printable with it.

3D Printer Material Wax

Wax is not a material used for printing a final product. Rather, it is used in the production process to implement an intermediate step. In 3D printing, wax is used as a blank to make molds, which are then used to produce solid objects made of metal (such as custom jewelry or gold teeth). A mold is pressed from clay around the 3D-printed wax object, and the wax then flows out of the mold - or burns completely - during the clay firing process. The liquid metal can then be poured into the fired clay mold. After cooling, the clay mold is shattered and what is left is a metal replica of the original wax print.

There are also filaments for FFF printing and especially resins for stereolithography, which burn without residue and are intended for the same purpose. The advantage compared to 3D wax printing is that 3D printers that can handle them are much more widespread and cheaper.

3D Printer Material Sandstone /Gypsum

Sandstone or polymer plaster is suitable for the production of concept models, and the popular 3D person scans are also often printed in sandstone. This is because the "Colorjet" printers "paint" the 3D model after printing using the familiar inkjet technique, which makes full-color 3D prints possible. The printers work in layers with plaster powder, which is hardened with a resin applied in the right places. Since the material loses its colors over time due to environmental factors, it is important that the sandstone is coated with a layer of epoxy resin after printing. Plaster is very fragile and therefore cannot reproduce very fine structures. As a 3D printer material, its applications are therefore limited; it is not suitable for components or other functional prints.

3D printer material resin

Since the first 3D printers were based on stereolithography (SLA) technology, which was invented in the mid-1980s, resin is also the oldest 3D printing material. The trick is that it is special UV light-sensitive resins (called photopolymers) that cure using UV light. This can happen by means of mirror-directed laser scanning of the area to be printed (origin method, similar to FFF printing with filament) or by means of exposing entire layers (DLP/LCD/CLIPS) at once. Where the light source for the latter technique can be a powerful projector lamp (DLP stereolithography or CLIPS) or a group of powerful UV LEDs (LCD stereolithography).

Because stereolithography works primarily with light and thus is mechanically contact-free, it can be used to print particularly fine structures with high precision and extremely thin layers, making it attractive for many applications (e.g., figure printing, dental technology or jewelry). One limitation of SLA printing is that it is only possible to print in one color - coloring as with paper, powder or sand printing is not possible, nor is multicolor printing, such as the simultaneous printing of several filaments as with FFF printing. For figure printing, however, the printed models are often painted by hand.

Peculiarities of 3D printing with resin

Because liquid resin, unlike, say, paper or powder, is also not suitable as a support for free-floating object parts, stereolithography also relies on support structures. Consequently, there are certain limitations to free object printability - though not quite as many as with FFF. for example, SLA has no ugly undersides and no problem with bridges or extreme overhangs. However, SLA support structures look different from FFF printing (tree-like instead of block-like) because in SLA the printed object is "pulled" upward out of the liquid resin against gravity.

The photopolymer resins are extremely viscous sticky toxic substances that should not get on the skin (leads to sensitization in the long term) and have a tendency to spread everywhere. In addition, the printed objects are still sticky and full of resin when they come out of the printer and must first be "washed", usually in a bath of isopropyl alcohol. After that, the surface is still slightly sticky and soft and must first be fully cured by UV irradiation in a so-called "curing station" or outdoors in the sun. Consequently, operating an SLA printer is usually quite a mess, and you can't simply remove the finished object from the printer as you can with filament 3D printing.

Due to the much cheaper construction compared to the traditional laser method and the much faster printing by collective exposure of whole layers with the new DLP and LCD technology, stereolithography is currently experiencing a revival. SLA printers with LCD and UV LEDs now cost a few hundred euros instead of a few thousand. That's why resin is now becoming more popular as a printing material. Which is leading to a lot of research on photopolymers and resins with certain properties coming onto the market, similar to FFF printing with the various special filaments. For example, there are now resins for 3D printing that can print particularly precise details, are especially temperature-stable, hard, impact-resistant, tough, UV-stable, weather-resistant or even elastic, or that burn without leaving residues (mold production, e.g. very widely used in jewelry production and dental technology).

Other 3D Printing Materials

There are countless other materials used for 3D printing today. For example, so-called bioprinters print directly with cells, and the first 3D-printed organs are expected to arrive in a few years. Printing with edible materials (chocolate, dough, butter, cookie dough, hazelnut cream, marzipan, cream cheese, fruit gum, etc) is also enjoying quite a bit of popularity for fancy and individualized food creations. Some companies now even print entire houses using the FFF process with thick concrete sausages or clay. Basically, any material that is moldable is also 3D printable, in at least one of the many different 3D printing techniques. If you can cure it specifically and quickly, it's even ideal for this.

What does your printer support?

The above listing gives you a general idea of which 3D printer material is basically suitable for what. However, you still have to consider your printer. Most printers can only print one of the material groups listed above. In our store you can get plastics of all kinds for filament printing as well as various resins for SLA 3D printing.