The Unsung Hero in 3D Printing: Plastic Filament

​When I go to in person events to talk about 3D printing, sure I get asked about the 3D printer I use, but surprisingly, the more common question I get asked is what all of the 3D printed objects are made from. I wanted to take a moment and clarify the material that goes into these machines to create final 3D printed products.

3D printing is constantly advancing and adding new methods of printing, but still, the most common material most people use is plastic filament. For those that have never 3D printed before, filament is basically thick plastic cord or string. It most commonly comes in 1 Kg rolls between $20 and $35 and in two main diameters, 1.75mm and 2.85mm. The size you use depends on what your printer requires. They come in a rainbow of colors, transparencies and properties and can be easily purchased.

​You do not need to go to some specialty to hobby shop anymore. 3D printer filament can be purchased at many places now ranging from to Best Buy to smaller independent sites. There are numerous suppliers that create and spool the plastic onto transportable rolls that you can purchase.

The plastic comes in many varieties, but the two most common plastics used in 3D printing are Polylactic Acid (PLA) and Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene (ABS). Outside of 3D printing, PLA is commonly used to create plastic wrap and plastic water bottles, while ABS is the same material that LEGOs are made from. When printed, each material has different requirements to ensure the print comes out correctly. PLA has to be printed at a temperature around 200 degrees Celsius, while ABS must be printed at much hotter temperatures, usually around 235 degrees Celsius. Another major difference between using these two plastics is that ABS needs to be printed on a heated surface, while PLA does not. This heated bed comes standard in some printers and has to be manually installed in others. This heated bed ensures that the first level of plastic sticks to the printer surface and allows for a higher quality print.

3D printing may still seem foreign and like highly advanced technology to some people, so it really surprises them to learn that the materials 3D printers use are, well, ordinary. The same materials you find in your kitchen and kid’s toy box are also found in 3D printing. As 3D printing continues to get more accessible, do not be afraid to try it out! It’s not as inaccessible as you might think.

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