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What's the Latest in 3D Printing Materials?
November 2, 2021
Reading time: 7 minutes
In the exciting world of 3D printing, advanced materials are quickly coming online. Just a few years ago, we could only print in a few composites, but today we have dozens of jaw-dropping choices, including wood, paper, and sandstone. Plus, there’s a wide selection of plastics, metals, minerals, and organic materials.
Below, you’ll see the top 25 3D printing materials, with the newest near the top. You’ll see materials that work at low heats, organic and eco-friendly options, and even ceramics and medical 3D print materials. Find the best 3D printing materials for your build with this handy 3D printing materials list.
1. Wood filament
3D printing in wood is one of the coolest new material choices. This relatively new 3D printer filament type contains about 30% wood (cork, wood dust, and other materials) along with resin and other fillers. It creates beautiful builds, smells just like real wood, and doesn’t need special nozzles (though it can clog smaller nozzles).
2. Metal filament
You can 3D print today in copper, brass, stainless steel, and even aluminum or bronze. The percentage of metal powder used in the printing material depends on the manufacturer. You don’t need to print at high temperatures to use high tensile-strength metal filaments, but you’ll need a wear-resistant nozzle. Also, the printed parts tend to be brittle.
As a 3D printing material, sandstone is ideal for modeling and making figurines, but it’s brittle and not a great choice for items you’ll handle often. Also called “gypsum” material, sandstone is a good pick for architectural models and art projects. You can create a more robust item by adding an epoxy resin coating.
Beautiful ceramic prints are possible thanks to 3D print materials made from clay and minerals. As with traditional ceramics, you still need to bake them in a kiln, then glaze and bake again to add a glossy finish. Ceramics are often used for dental implants and art projects, and are created using stereolithography (SLA) and fused deposition modeling (FDM) technologies.
5. Conductive filament
You can print wearable electronics, touch-sensitive buttons, and other electronic items with conductive filament 3D printable materials. They’re made from a mix of polylactic acid (PLA) and graphene to conduct electricity. Parts made with conductive filaments are brittle, so most builds require a PLA casing around the conductive components.
Another way to 3D print wood materials, paper printing works by using selective deposition lamination (SDL) technology. You can print full-color parts with paper SDL printing. In this printing technique, the printer layers glue, then heats and cuts. Paper 3D printing is popular for model making, especially in the architectural field.
Wax 3D printing is most often used together with other methods to produce jewelry or dental appliances at a low cost. During wax printing, creators often use the wax to add structural integrity during builds. Then, it’s ultimately melted from the finished product. Wax printing generally uses SLA print technology.
Polyetheretherketone (PEEK) is among the more advanced materials for 3D printing. It works by using FDM or selective laser sintering (SLS) technologies. It’s most often used to make high-performance builds for aerospace, medical, and automotive applications, and it requires printing at a high heat (400°C).
A composite of aluminum and nylon, alumide is similar to nylon but has a tough, shiny finish. It’s often used in prototyping and manufacturing. Alumide uses SLS technology, which compacts nylon and aluminum particles with heat from a laser. Alumide printing is ideal when you need tough, tight-tolerance parts.
Inconel is an alloy made of chrome and nickel. Because of its extreme heat resistance, it’s often used to make the black boxes in airplanes and parts for rocket engines. It requires direct metal laser sintering technology, otherwise the metal is difficult to work with.
For low-cost prints, ABS filament is a tough, durable, and popular material with a few other attractive features. It stands up to impacts, provides a smooth finish, and has good heat resistance. ABS does tend to shrink as it cools, which makes it difficult to print with tight tolerances.
FDM printers can use thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) to produce flexible resin parts that are soft to the touch. TPU and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) are flexible filaments that have high impact resistance and a long shelf life. However, they may be difficult to print, because they can create frequent strings and blobs during the process.
13. Glow-in-the-dark resin
Making fun toys for kids is easy with PLA-based glow-in-the-dark resin. Developed for SLA and DLP printers, it delivers a high glow effect activated just like other glow-in-the-dark materials – by placing it near an active light source. It’s ideal for outdoor applications, emits little odor during printing, and glows for up to 4 hours on a single “charge.”
When it comes to the strongest 3D printed materials, titanium leads the pack. This super-strong metal is challenging to work with in a traditional machining process, but less challenging to 3D print. It’s lightweight and resistant to chemicals and heat, and it’s used to make aircraft parts and other strong, light items. Titanium 64 3D printing uses SLM and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) technologies.
15. Plant-based resin
As a non-toxic, eco-friendly 3D print material, plant-based resin is a user-friendly option for SLA printers. It’s very affordable, biodegradable, low odor, and offers wide compatibility with any printer that works with third-party materials. Plus, it produces rich, vibrant colors and durable builds.
Glycol-modified polyethylene terephthalate (PETG) filament creates glossy and smooth-finished printed items that hold their shape well during cooling. It also offers high impact resistance, though it’s prone to stringing during printing. It’s ideal for making waterproof applications and snap-fit components, and it can tolerate low-temperature printing.
A great low-cost 3D print material, high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) is lightweight and impact-resistant, which makes it ideal for wearables and protective cases. Also called high-density polyethylene (HDPE), it’s dissolvable with chemicals, so it’s a great temporary support material for ABS printing. It’s often used in recyclable packaging, plastic bottles, and pipes.
18. Carbon fiber filament
For making light, strong parts, carbon fiber filament is an ideal material for 3D printing. The tiny fibers are added to nylon, ABS, PETG, PLA, and other base materials to deliver more strength. These specialized fibers are prone to clogging and oozing and they’re also abrasive, so you need a hardened steel nozzle to print with carbon fiber.
3D printing with nylon generally requires extruder temperatures of 250°C, though low-temperature filaments by some brands work at lower temps of 220°C. Nylon produces tough, somewhat-flexible builds with good abrasion resistance, high impact resistance, and low odor during printing.
Nylon tends to warp during cooling and it's not ideal for humid environments because of its high water absorption.
An incredibly strong 3D print material, polycarbonate approaches steel in its impact and heat resistance, but it remains bendable and highly transparent. You need to reach very high print temperatures to work with it, and it tends to ooze during printing and warp during the cooling process.
Acrylic styrene acrylonitrile (ASA) is a tough, UV-resistant 3D printable plastic developed as an ABS alternative for outside applications. It’s on the expensive side and requires high extruder temperatures. It also produces dangerous fumes during printing. It’s typically used for outdoor parts like electronics housings, signs, and automotive trim.
Lightweight and semi-rigid, polypropylene is used to make watch straps, storage containers, and packing materials. It has good heat, impact, and fatigue resistance, and it creates a smooth surface finish thanks to its semi-crystalline structure. But it warps heavily during cooling, which makes it somewhat challenging to print with.
Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is often used to make decorative parts and dissolvable or removable support parts for other builds. It dissolves in water without the need for special solvents or additional hardware. It’s also biodegradable and a good choice for making quick, disposable prototypes.
Similar to polyester, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) cools into a rigid material similar to glass. Also known as t-glase, it comes in a wide selection of colors and is approved for use with food. You can use it to print cups, utensils, and water bottles, and enjoy a resilient finished product.
A common 3D printing filament for years, polylactic acid (PLA) is the go-to choice for many applications thanks to its low cost and ease of use. A great low-temperature selection, PLA filament is environmentally friendly. It’s also derived from food crops like sugarcane and corn. It can create just about anything, including props, decorations, and test parts.
Medical grade materials list
3D printing is a common manufacturing method for medical devices like tubing, dental implants, replacement knee and hip joints, prototypes, pacemakers, cranial plates, and other implants and items.
Here’s a short list of medical grade 3D print materials:
3D printing is an increasingly exciting way to fabricate parts for thousands of applications across hundreds of industries. As new and more versatile 3D print materials come online, the usefulness and accessibility of 3D printing will only continue to improve. It’s an incredibly interesting industry, and the sky seems to be the limit for how we’ll use 3D printing in the next year, never mind the next decade.
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.
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