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3D printer filament spools. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Sashkin

3D Printer Filament: Types, Materials, Uses, and Services

Learn more about the options for filament materials that are used in 3D printing.

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
August 23, 2022
 10 min read
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3D printing filament is a thermoplastic wire fed to a fused deposition modeling 3D printer. Two of the popular filaments, PLA and ABS, were already used in different applications in 1930 and 1940 respectively. In 1981, thermosetting polymers were used as 3D printer filaments. When FDM (fused deposition modeling) was invented in 1988, the traditional plastic filament was already in use. 

3D printer filaments come in various materials, such as silk, wood, bronze, gold, and carbon. These filaments come in 1.75 mm and 3 mm thicknesses and are sold in spools. Cost for filaments can range from $10 to $120 or higher, depending on the type, quality, brand, and properties.

This article will discuss 3D printer filament types, materials, and their uses.

For more information, see our guide on Everything You Need to Know About 3D Printing.

What Are the Types of 3D Printer Filament?

Listed below are the different types of 3D printer filament:

  1. Standard Plastic Filaments: Commonly used 3D print filaments, namely, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid). PLA is known for its impact-resistance properties, while ABS is tougher and lighter. 
  2. Other Thermoplastic Filaments: These Include nylon (polyamide), PET (polyethylene terephthalate), PVA (polyvinyl alcohol), ASA (acrylonitrile styrene acrylate), and HIPS (high impact polystyrene). The application of these filaments differs based on their properties. For example, HIPS and PVA are commonly used as support materials for dual-extrusion printers due to their solubility properties.  
  3. Flexible Filaments: These are filaments with a blend of rubber and rigid plastic properties. Examples include TPE (thermoplastic elastomer), TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane), and amphora filament. Both TPE and TPU are popular choices for designs that require flexibility. 
  4. Exotic Filaments: These make use of a base material, such as PLA, and enhance them with special additives to perform extra functions. Examples include sandstone, wood, silk, metal, and magnetic filaments. The application of the different filaments will depend on the desired finish of the end product. For example, in silk filaments, the appearance of a silk-like finish is desired. 

What Are the Materials Used for 3D Printer Filaments?

3D printing filaments come in various materials, such as thermoplastics, silk, carbon fiber, metal, wood, ceramic, and sandstone. The selection of the materials depends on the application and desired properties of the finished print.  Common material options are shown below.

Polylactic Acid

PLA is a thermoplastic filament derived from renewable sources, such as corn starch and sugar cane. PLA has similar characteristics to polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), or polyethylene (PE).

Acrylonitrile

Acrylonitrile is a chemical compound used to manufacture ABS and ASA. ABS boasts good impact strength and abrasion resistance. ASA was developed for more extreme weather conditions and outdoor applications. 

Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol

PETG is a thermoplastic polyester with excellent durability and chemical resistance. It is a more advanced form of PET. The “G” stands for glycol, which is added to offer some extra properties. PETG offers better strength and durability, and it is more impact resistant and better suited for high temperatures compared to PET.

Thermoplastic Polyurethane

TPU is polyurethane plastic and a subset of TPE. Compared to TPE, TPU is tougher and more rigid, making it well suited for heavier, tougher, and more durable prototypes.

Exotic Filaments

Exotic 3D printing filaments are composite filaments with a base material enhanced with additives. This offers special mechanical properties and finishes. 

For more information, see our guide on the Best Materials for 3D printing.

What Are the Best Materials for 3D Printer Filaments?

The best materials for 3D printer filaments vary according to application and desired properties. Table 1 compares the different filaments and their properties:

ABS and PLA are two of the most cost-effective filament options, with prices starting at $10 and $15 respectively. Most composite filaments use PLA as a base material and adopt its properties with some additives for enhancement. This results in composite materials having medium to low durability, flexibility, and strength. HIPS and carbon fiber are, however, an exception as both exhibit high durability. 

What Factors Affect the Strength of 3D Printer Filament?

The factors that affect the strength of a 3D printer filament are:

  1. Tensile Strength: For parts that need tensile strength to resist forces pulling on the object, both PETG and PC are favorable options. PETG has strong bonding between layers.
  2. Impact Strength: The strongest 3D printer filaments in terms of impact resistance include ABS, PETG, PC, and TPU.
  3. Tear Strength: For parts that require high tear strength, TPU filament is a good option.

What Is the Strongest 3D Printer Filament?

Polycarbonate is the strongest 3D printer filament. It has a tensile strength of 70 MPa and has excellent impact strength.

Maintenance of 3D Printer Filament

Maintaining 3D printer filament is dependent on storage. When selecting the appropriate storage solution, consider the climate, shelf life, and the environment where the filament will be used. For example, PLA has a shelf life of 2–3 years. Typical maintenance involves storing PLA in a cool, dry, and dark place (moisture-free storage). After two years, print quality might start to deteriorate, and the filament may require replacement.

What Are the Factors That Impact the Durability of 3D Printed Products?

The following factors influence the durability of 3D printer filaments:

  1. Layer Thickness: The layer thickness of a printed object affects how strong the object will be within the range of its material properties. 
  2. Material Quality: High-quality materials usually perform better and are more durable.
  3. Appropriate Temperature: Different 3D printing filaments have different temperature sensitivities. Take note of the specified temperature range of the filament to ensure that it matches the temperature conditions encountered while creating the final product.  
  4. Retraction: If the retraction is too high it will result in small gaps or globbing caused by air pockets within the printhead. If the printer doesn’t retract enough, visible oozing will occur as the nozzle travels. The filament will string between features because the nozzle does not stop the extrusion of material before moving. 
  5. Part Orientation: 3D printed parts are strongest in planes parallel to the print bed and inherently weaker in the build direction.
  6. Infill and Perimeters: Increasing the infill density of a printed part adds to the part’s stiffness and prevents it from deforming.

What Are the Uses of 3D Printer Filament?

Listed below are some of the use-cases for prints printed with 3D printer filaments:

  1. Medical: Used as medical stitches, implants, medical devices, and prostheses. 
  2. Industrial: Used to print functional parts or prototypes, custom tooling, and molds for injection molding.  
  3. Sports: Used to print grips for hockey sticks, helmets, and soles of athletic footwear.  
  4. Automotive: Used in car-part prototypes including interior elements, dashboards, and scale models of a car.  

What Are the Advantages of 3D Printer Filament?

3D printer filament offers some advantages that include:

  • Affordability and a wide selection of materials and properties.
  • Allows unique properties and finishes which resemble the “real deal.” For example, silk filaments give the illusion of a silk-like finish. 
  • Strong and durable prints can be created by reinforcing regular PLA or ABS with composite materials, such as fiberglass or carbon fiber.
  • Printers that use 3D print filaments typically have large build volumes.

Compared to resin 3D printers, machines that use 3D printer filaments have larger build volumes and can therefore be used to print larger products.  

What Are the Disadvantages of 3D Printer Filament?

Some drawbacks of 3D printer filaments are:

  • Filament prints have lower resolution and quality  
  • Filaments don’t perform exceptionally well in reproducing intricate details and patterns 

Compared to its resin print counterpart, filament offers lower resolution and quality. Resin prints also offer better surface finishes. 

Where To Buy a 3D Printer Filament

3D printer filament can be bought from:

  1. International Companies: Amazon’s global market has access to a variety of brands and types of filament at good prices. It offers a logistics network for economical shipping and has an unmatched return policy.
  2. Local US Companies: Several local US companies sell 3D printer filaments. It is important to consider location, available delivery resources, and good reviews when selecting a supplier. Xometry offers an online marketplace with a wide network of machine shops, custom manufacturers, and a wide selection of 3D printer filaments.  

How To Find a 3D Printer Filament Near You

There are a few ways of finding 3D filament near you:

  1. Thomasnet.com has a list of over 80 3D printer filament suppliers and allows you to narrow it by geography.
  2. Go to local maker spaces and ask around for names of 3D printer filament companies.
  3. Ask on forums for 3D filament suppliers in your area.

How To Choose the Best 3D Printer Filament Service

Tips for choosing the best 3D printer filament service include:

  1. Look for companies that are well-established with a professional online profile. 
  2. Ensure they offer the correct filament you are looking for.
  3. Look at some reviews of other clients on and off their platforms. 
  4. Try a small order to test the quality of their products. 
What Are the Signals for a Quality 3D Printer Filament Service?

Some signals to look out for when seeking a quality 3D printer filament service are:

  1. Testimonials for the service from trusted sources.
  2. Online reviews on websites such as HelloPeter or Google Reviews.

Ninjatek is a good example of a well-known, reputable brand that offers quality filament.

What Are the Best 3D Printer Filaments?

The best 3D printer filaments are as follows:

  1. Hatchbox or Eryone PLA 3D printer filaments are good, cost-effective, all-purpose filaments. 
  2. NinjaFlex TPE and TPU 3D printer filaments are best for flexible prints. 
  3. PolyMax PC 3D printer filament is best for strength and durability. 

Is Multi-Filament 3D Printing Better?

Multi-filament dual-extrusion 3D printers are best when printing complex designs or designs with a support structure. Printing two different materials simultaneously saves time and combines the best properties of each material.

What Is the Benefit of Metal 3D Printer Filament Compared to Wood 3D Printer Filament? 

The benefits of metal 3D printer filament compared to wood 3D printer filament are:

  1. Metal filaments are more abrasive resistant compared to wood filaments.
  2. Metal filament is more durable and rigid than wood-filled 3D printer filament.
  3. Metal prints are suitable for functional mechanical parts and industrial applications. 

What Are the Alternatives to 3D Printer Filament?

Other alternative 3D printer filaments to “standard” plastics such as ABS, PLA, and PET are:

  1. Biodegradable filaments 
  2. Hemp 3D print filaments 
  3. Coffee 3D printer filaments 

Is Resin Better Than 3D Printer Filament?

Resin can be better than 3D printer filament, depending on the application. Resin-based prints are known to have superior quality and are great for highly detailed miniature models. Filaments are more durable, less expensive, and better for larger objects.

What Is the Relation of 3D Infill to 3D Printer Filament?

3D printer filament is the material used to create 3D infill. Infill density is the amount of filament printed inside the model, object, or prototype. For more information, see our guide on 3D Infill.

Summary

This article reviewed the different types of 3D printer filament and summarized their uses and properties. To learn more about 3D printer filaments and decide which one is best for your application, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D printing and value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.