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Exploring today's technology for tomorrow's possibilities
A Guide to 3D Printing Materials

A Guide to 3D Printing Materials

So which materials do 3D printers use to print anyhow? This is a common refrain from those unfamiliar with how 3D printers like the HP Metal Jet render physical objects, and even those more familiar with the 3D printing process may be surprised to find out there are other lesser-known printing materials, from chemical elements to precious earth metals to commonplace LEGO® bricks.
View our detailed infographic below to find out all there is to know about today's many 3D printing applications, their various source materials, and each material's environmental friendliness.
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You might already be familiar with 3D printing, it’s revolutionizing manufacturing, expanding the art world, and improving medical procedures. However, you might not know all of the different kinds of materials that can be utilized in the 3D printing process for a variety of applications from toys to prosthetics.

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a process that allows the creation of physical objects, built layer by layer. These specialized printers can be used to create an endless array of things like prosthetics, camera lenses, bike frames, toys, art, instruments, organs, medical models, product prototypes, aircraft parts, and so much more.

Popular 3D printing materials

There are many 3D printing materials available, and each material serves a different end. Creators decide which material is best for their purpose based on its flexibility, stiffness, strength, or color.

1. Nylon

Nylon, also called polyamide, is a filament that’s both tough and semi-flexible. This material is great for printing durable parts like cable ties, screws, nuts, bolts, and plastic gears. Nylon is typically used for conceptual models, functional models, tooling, and art. Pros:
  • Flexible
  • Strong
  • Chemically resistant
  • Impact-resistant
  • Scratch-resistant
Cons:
  • May degrade from humidity
  • May shrink during cooling
  • May warp
  • Air-tight storage of filaments required
  • Unsuitable for humid areas
Environmental impact: No form of nylon is biodegradable and the production of nylon releases toxic materials.

2. ABS

ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene; this is the plastic that’s used in Lego bricks. You will typically see ABS in decorations, toys, and boat hulls. You can also use ABS for architectural models, concept models, DIY projects, and manufacturing. Pros:
  • Lightweight
  • Strong
  • Available in many colors
  • Limited post-processing necessary
Cons:
  • Emits odorous fumes when melted
  • Will degrade from humidity
Environmental impact: ABS can be recycled, and certain types of ABS filaments are biodegradable.

3. Resin

There are many resin types used for 3D printing including general-purpose, castable, tough, flexible, and high-temp resins to name a few. With resin, you can expect smooth surfaces, fine details, and a wide range of finishing and post-processing opportunities. Resin can be leveraged for conceptual models, functional models, tooling (prototypes), visual arts, jewelry, and medical manufacturing. Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Smooth surface
  • Heat-resistant
Cons:
  • More expensive than other materials
  • Less flexible than other materials
Environmental impact: Many resins are created from fossil sources and are not biodegradable. They also release toxic substances when burned. However, in recent years, more eco-friendly resins have become available like eco-resins, a group of polymer resins that are non-toxic, renewable, or solvent-free. Bio-resins are also available, which are resins created from natural plant and vegetable extracts or renewable resources.

4. Stainless Steel

This 3D printing material is made by melting conventional steel and adding in chromium and molybdenum. You can use stainless steel for anything that requires both strength and detail like miniatures, key chains, watch parts, and jewelry. Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Strong
  • Corrosion-resistant
Cons:
  • May take longer to print than other materials
  • Material may be limited in availability
Environmental impact: Stainless steel is 100% recyclable and isn’t coated with any toxic material, so it doesn’t produce toxic runoff. It’s a highly eco-friendly 3D printing material.

5. Gold and Silver

These precious metals bring an air of elegance to 3D printing. As non-corrosive metals, they boast serious staying power. They’re often used in your digital devices for that very reason and in many cases, you can find them inside your laptop or smartphone (and why you should recycle your e-waste). You can use gold and silver for jewelry, dentistry, and functional models. Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Smooth surface
  • Provides a better level of detail
Cons:
  • Very expensive
  • Requires wax casting technique
Environmental impact: Dirty mining of precious metals can impact the environment. Mining companies generate about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring.

6. Titanium

This versatile 3D printing material is a low-density, high-strength metal with a very high melting point. HRE, a US car company, printed the first titanium car rim with 3D printing technology. Danish company CeramicSpeed and the Danish Institute of Technology (DTI) collaborate to create a 3D printed titanium derailleur pulley for professional cyclists. The pulley’s design is impossible to make through traditional manufacturing methods and can withstand more wear and tear than other pulleys. You can use titanium for tooling, functional models, and manufacturing. Pros:
  • High-resolution
  • Heat-resistant
  • Highly durable
  • Cons:
  • Very expensive
  • Can easily explode in powder form, requires a special atmosphere
Environmental impact: Titanium is one of the most eco-friendly materials that you can use in a 3D printer. It doesn’t deteriorate which makes it easier to recycle and its low weight reduces the energy required to transport it.

7. Ceramic

The use of ceramics and its origin goes all the way back to the ancient Greek civilization where ornate pots depicted mythical heroes. Today, it’s been utilized in 3D printers for revolutionary art and production. By 2028, the 3D ceramics industry is expected to generate up to $3.6 billion globally. Ceramic material is an inorganic solid made up of compounds that have been shaped and hardened by heating to high temperatures. You can use ceramic for visual arts and manufacturing parts although its delicate nature is a drawback to consider before using. Pros:
  • Heat-resistant
  • Hard-wearing
  • Affordable
Cons:
  • Fragile
  • Has fewer applications
Environmental impact: Ceramics require a great deal of heat to produce, but there are ways to practice sustainability when working with ceramics. For example, users can collect glaze waste for reuse in future ceramic projects. Leftover ceramic bits can also be gathered and crushed for general construction.

8. Tissue

That’s right - you can actually print human and animal tissue through a process called bioprinting. Using bioprinting, scientists and engineers can generate living tissue, bone, organs, and blood vessels. These artificially-created living materials can be used to train medical students instead of taking a risk on a real patient. Bioprinting can also be leveraged for medical procedures like skin grafts or tissue transplants.
In addition, bioprinting allows doctors and scientists to test research and cures or treatments for diseases.
Bioprinting is already improving the lives of patients. For example, a team from Swansea University created a bioprinting method that creates a bone matrix from biocompatible bone material. These printed bones are transplanted into the patient’s body where they fuse with the patient’s existing bones - typically without any kind of complications because they’re made from biocompatible components. Eventually, scientists hope to be able to transplant entire organs, but the technology is still way off.
You can use tissue for training medical students, testing new treatments, and medical procedures. Pros:
  • Life-saving potential
  • Improve treatment options
  • Training
Cons:
  • Expensive
  • Organ-replication not possible yet

Conclusion: 3D printing is paving the way for a better future

The original pioneers of 3D printing helped to create a platform that others have expanded and built upon. Today, 3D printing is growing in different industries and new ways of leveraging this technology are still being created.

Infographic transcription:

What is 3D printing?

3D printing is a process that allows the creation of physical objects, built layer by layer. 3D printers can be used to create an endless array of things:
  • Artificial organs
  • Musical instruments
  • Camera lenses
  • Bikes
  • Toys
  • Medical models
  • ...and so much more

7 popular 3D printing materials

There are many 3D printing materials available…

Nylon

Nylon filament is a tough and semi-flexible material that is great for printing durable parts.

You can use nylon for:

  • Conceptual models
  • Functional models
  • Medical applications
  • Tooling
  • Visual arts
Pros:
  • Flexible
  • Strong
  • Chemically resistant
Cons:
  • May degrade from humidity
  • May shrink during cooling
Environmental impact: No form of nylon is biodegradable, and production of nylon releases toxic materials.

ABS

ABS stands for acrylonitrile butadiene styrene; this is the plastic that’s used in Lego® bricks. You can use ABS for:
  • Architectural models
  • Concept models
  • DIY projects
  • Manufacturing
Pros:
  • Lightweight
  • Strong
  • Available in many colors
Cons:
  • Emits odorous fumes when melted
  • Will degrade from humidity
Environmental impact: ABS can be recycled, and certain types of ABS filaments are said to be biodegradable.

Resin

There are many resin types used for 3D printing: general purpose, castable, tough, flexible, and high-temp resins, to name a few. You can use resin for:
  • Conceptual models
  • Functional models
  • Tooling (Prototypes)
  • Visual arts
  • Jewelry
  • Medical manufacturing
Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Smooth surface
  • Heat-resistant
Cons:
  • More expensive
  • Less flexible than other materials
Environmental impact: Many resins are created from fossil sources, are not biodegradable, and release toxic substances when burned. However, in recent years, more eco-friendly resins have become available.
  • Eco-resins: a group of polymer resins that are non-toxic, renewable, or solvent-free
  • Bio-resins: resins created from natural plant and vegetable extracts or renewable resources

Stainless steel

This 3D printing material is made by melting conventional steel and adding in chromium and molybdenum. You can use stainless steel for:
  • Conceptual models
  • Functional models
  • Tooling (Prototypes)
  • Visual arts
  • Manufacturing
Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Strong
  • Corrosion-resistant
Cons:
  • Has longer lead time than other materials
  • Material may be limited
Environmental impact: Stainless steel is 100% recyclable, and it isn’t coated with any toxic material, so it doesn’t produce toxic runoff.

Gold, silver

These precious metals bring an air of elegance to 3D printing. You can use gold and silver for:
  • Jewelry
  • Dentistry
  • Functional models
Pros:
  • High resolution
  • Smooth surface
  • Provides better level of detail
Cons:
  • Very expensive
  • Requires wax casting technique
Environmental impact: Dirty mining of precious metals can impact the environment. Mining companies generate about 20 tons of toxic waste for every 0.333-ounce gold ring.

Titanium

This versatile 3D printing material is a low-density, high-strength metal with a very high melting point. You can use titanium for:
  • Tooling
  • Functional models
  • Manufacturing
Pros:
  • High-resolution
  • Heat-resistant
  • Highly durable
Cons:
  • Very expensive
  • Can easily explode in powder form, requires special atmosphere
Environmental impact: Titanium is one of the most eco-friendly materials:
  • It doesn’t deteriorate, making it easier to recycle
  • Its low weight reduces energy required to transport it

Ceramic

A ceramic is an inorganic solid made up of compounds that have been shaped and hardened by heating to high temperatures. You can use ceramic for:
  • Visual arts
  • Manufacturing
Pros:
  • Heat-resistant
  • Hard-wearing
  • Affordable
Cons:
  • Fragile
  • Has fewer applications
Environmental impact: Ceramics require a great deal of heat to produce, but there are ways to practice sustainability when working with ceramics:
  • Collect glaze waste for reuse in future ceramic projects
  • Collect ceramic waste, then crush for use in general construction
Learn more about 3D printers, including HP®'s industrial metal printer and how 3D printers work on HP® Tech Takes.

Infographic sources:

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Learn more about 3D printers, including HP®'s industrial metal printer and how 3D printers work on HP® Tech Takes.

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