Advances in manufacturing have recently provided product developers with new materials to make the manufacturing process more diverse. However, material choice can make a big difference in the success or failure of an end product. With so many different options available in the 3D Printed universe, what material should you use?
Depending on your product and its application, the printing technology and material you choose can be a make or break decision (literally). It’s important to understand each material’s characteristics, namely its technical and aesthetic properties.
PLA (polylactic acid) is a low-cost material that’s good for general first build use cases. Since it’s biodegradable, it’s commonly used for prototyping. However, since it’s not as strong as other printed materials, it’s not recommended for later-stage product builds.
In most cases, PLA will generally have a rougher finish than other materials, due to the fact that support material has to be manually broken off. This can result in residual material or rough surfaces. As such, parts with complex geometry or parts with lots of curves will show the stepping of each layer in greater detail.
ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), on the other hand, is one of the more well-known printed materials that is used for mechanical use. It’s an economical material that can fit most mid-structural applications, enclosures, covers, trim components, and more. Similar to PLA, however, ABS doesn’t offer the highest resolutions, though additional post-processing (like sanding) can be applied later to help improve the look and feel of the part.
Another option in the ABS family is ABS-M30, a material that can be up to 70% stronger than standard ABS. It has greater tensile, impact and flexural strength and typically has smoother finishes with more detail, making it a great option for both functional prototyping and end-use builds.
PC (polycarbonate) is one of the most common plastics used in manufacturing today. Since it’s heat-resistant, impact-resistant, and flame-retardant, it can be used in a wide variety of products. Everyday applications of polycarbonate include eyewear and plastic lenses, medical devices, and protective gear. Since it can also maintain its shape at higher temperatures, it is also used for lighting fixtures. However, given its glossy finishes, polycarbonate is more prone to scratches than other materials.
PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate – Glycol Modified) is a material that has become most common in food safe containers, specifically when manufacturing water bottles. Though the material can wear more easily, it does have good impact resistance and is more durable than other entry-level plastics.
ULTEM, the brand name of polyetherimide (PEI), is a very durable plastic that is known for having high resistance to stress, temperature, and chemicals. Since it holds up well to temperature and has high thermal conductivity, it’s commonly used in electrical connectors, medical instruments, and chip test sockets.
Carbon Fiber, while not having the same longer-term durability that other materials may have, is a lightweight and stable material that is one of the stronger materials available. Given that it is a specialty material, it’s applications aren’t as widespread. However, it’s most commonly found in complex bracketry, functional prototypes, and lightweight metal replacement parts.
Vero and VeroClear are two printed materials that offer extremely high resolution. Given that, these materials are often used for early demonstration models or form fit verification models so you can accurately check how parts fit together. low-cost form fit models. early demonstration models or form fit verification models
One advantage of using Vero or VeroClear is that both materials are printed using PolyJet 3D printing technology, meaning that parts are made from a photopolymer resin and cured with a UV light. Since this process doesn’t heat plastics or use lasers like other traditional 3D Printing processes, warpage or shrinkage on larger parts is less likely with these materials.
This material is most often used to simulate Injection Molded plastics, specifically the high-temperature resistance and toughness of ABS. However, ABS-Like actually prints with similar high-resolution appearances like Vero and uses the same Polyjet process to reduce the likelihood of warp and shrink. For parts that need the quality of Vero with a bit more functional demand, ABS-Like is a great option.
Rubber-like is one of the more unique materials available for 3D Printing. Since it’s printed on Polyjet machines, the material will give you very similar flexibility that traditional rubbers would have. It’s great for simulating rubbers between Shore 27A and Shore 90A, though it won’t give you the same elastomeric properties that real rubbers have.
That said, it can be used to simulate softer, more durable products like rubber latches, flexible toys, and even tactile surfaces. However, it’s worth noting that the rubber-like material can show defects more easily, so build lines may be visible.
Polyamide is a self-supporting powder nylon that doesn’t need any support structure during printing. As such, it’s a great material to use for a number of different applications, including snap fits, brackets, clips, and spring features. Since it prints using Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) technology, the resulting prints are highly detailed and can be used beyond just prototypes.
Ultimately, the material choice can impact your product build, well beyond just what it’s made from. Not all materials are equal, so depending on your stage of production, it’s crucial to understand what your options are and what materials fit your project.
Author: Ishan Bhide is an Applications Engineer at Fictiv. He graduated with a BSE in Industrial Engineering and has been helping teams develop hardware and get to market quickly. He’s extremely passionate about the applications of additive manufacturing, especially in the aerospace, automotive, robotics, and medical device industries.