A complete guide to 3D printing materials

A complete guide to 3D printing materials

A comprehensive overview of 3D printing materials, including metals, plastics and ceramics.

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Whatever you're making with 3D printing, one of the most important questions you'll have to ask yourself as early on as possible, is what material you intend to use. Or you may already have a part in mind with specific specs, mechanical and dimensional requirements, and you are investigating what 3D printing materials would be most suitable. 3D printing allows for a wide range of materials to be used, each of these with subtly different characteristics and capabilities. It's likely that you already know what type of material you would like to print, but it's still helpful to know everything that's available to you. So, let's take a look at the materials available for additive manufacturing.

What are the most common additive manufacturing materials?

In this article, we’ll be covering 3 key categories of material that can be used with 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies:

  1. Plastics / Polymers
  2. Metals
  3. Ceramics

The type of material you use will depend on the characteristics you want your finished object to have, but also on the type of 3D printing that is available to you. Some of the processes use high temperatures and pressures, which has to be considered when selecting your material or type of process.

Let’s go into a bit more detail on the three broad categories of 3D printing materials.

Plastic 3D printing materials

Plastics commonly used in 3D printing include ABS and PC. Structural polymers can also be used, in addition to a number of epoxy-based resins and waxes. Mixing polymer powders together can be used to create a whole host of structural and aesthetic materials.  Polymers for 3D printing may include ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), Polyamide (Nylon), Nylon 12, PC (polycarbonate), Glass-filled nylon (polyamide reinforced with glass beads), PLA (polylactide), epoxy resin, photopolymer resin, and wax.

Additive manufacturing materials: What are plastic polymers?

A polymer is a long-chain molecule composed of a large number of repeat units, each with an identical structure. Polymers can be classified in different ways according to their properties. For example, the mechanical properties of polymers, such as tensile strength, toughness, and elasticity, depend on hydrogen bonding and intermolecular forces.

Polymers can be classified by molecular force as thermoplastics, elastomers, or thermosets.


Thermoplastics are usually semi-crystalline, meaning they’re a combination of crystalline and amorphous regions. The amorphous structure is directly responsible for the elastic properties, while the crystal structure is directly responsible for the mechanical properties of the thermoplastic materials. Polymers with a low to medium stiffness, elongation, and rigidity are considered thermoplastics. They can be melted, reformed, and reused.

HP Multi Jet Fusion 3D printing technology, for example, uses high-reusability thermoplastic 3D printing materials that have been specifically developed for HP Jet Fusion 3D Printing Solutions.


Elastomers are polymers with a high elastic elongation and a high flexibility against breaking or cracking.

Data courtesy1


Thermosets have a higher resistance to high temperatures than thermoplastics but are more brittle. They can melt and be reshaped once, but the process is irreversible, and they cannot be recycled.

Polymer morphology


Amorphous polymers show a highly disordered polymer chain. As a consequence, they show low shrinkage, have a broad melting point, more elasticity, and present lower resistance to chemicals.


On the contrary, crystalline polymers show a long-range polymer order and chain segments that are considered crystalline. As a consequence, these materials have better mechanical properties, higher shrinkage, and a narrower melting point.

Thermoplastics are usually semi-crystalline – a combination of crystalline and amorphous regions. The amorphous structure is directly responsible for the elastic properties, while the crystal structure is directly responsible for the mechanical properties of the thermoplastic materials.

Metal additive manufacturing materials

A number of metal materials can be used in MAM, which includes a range of options suitable for structural and integral component parts. These are mostly in the form of metal powders or wires.

Data courtesy2

Metal materials typically used for 3D printing include: 

Stainless steel

The most widely used class of materials known for their corrosion and heat resistance with a good combination of high strength and durability.

Low alloy steel

A widely used class of materials used in applications requiring a balance of hardness with high yield and tensile strengths.

Ni-based superalloys

High tensile materials with excellent durability in a wide range of extreme temperatures requiring excellent corrosion resistance.

Tool steel 

Extremely hard class of materials with excellent durability, especially for cutting tool or molding applications.

Cobalt chrome

A biocompatible class of materials exhibiting a good combination of strength, hardness, heat resistance and corrosion resistance.


High thermal and electrical conductivity material that is easily formed due to its ductility.


A lightweight metal with excellent mechanical characteristics. It is strong and highly resistant to heat, oxidation, and acid. Also, it is biocompatible with an excellent strength to weight ratio.


Lightweight, durable, strong, aluminum is also widely used and has good thermal properties.

Ceramic 3D printing materials

Ceramics are a solid material that comprises inorganic compounds of metal, non-metal, or ionic and covalent bonds. This can cause some confusion as it technically means that many of the 3D printable ceramics sound more like plastics or metals. For example, carbon fiber and silicon are technically ceramics. 

Ceramics for 3D printing can be divided into two categories: 

Technical ceramics

Most 3D printed ceramics fall into this category as they are regularly created as custom solutions for specific applications. Some well-known technical ceramics are Aluminum Nitride, Zirconia, Silicon Nitride, Silicon Carbide, and Alumina.

Classic ceramics 

Made up of natural raw materials, like clay, and include silicon, carbon, and nitrogen. Classic ceramics include stoneware, earthenware, and porcelain. 

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Footnotes and disclaimers

  1. Data courtesy of BASF
  2. Data courtesy of Schneider Electric