10 3D Printing Filaments You Should Know About
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on October 28, 2016 |

The hype around consumer 3D printing has all but worn off, but that doesn’t mean that desktop 3D printing has gone away. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly capable, not just in terms of the printers themselves, but in terms of the materials that they can handle. These 10 filaments from various manufacturers demonstrate that low-cost 3D printers can do some pretty amazing things.

PolySmooth

Polymaker is an interesting player in the 3D printing materials market as it began as a filament start-up that was launched via Kickstarter, but, with $3 million in funding from Legend Star, a venture capitalist subsidiary of Lenovo's parent company Legend Holdings, the company was reborn as an important player in the 3D printing scene.

Polished prints made with PolySmooth on display at IMTS 2016.
Polished prints made with PolySmooth on display at IMTS 2016.

After manufacturing a series of well-received filaments, Polymaker developed the PolySher, a machine designed to smooth out alcohol-based prints to the point that they are aesthetically indistinguishable from mass-produced parts. PolySmooth is meant to have the mechanical properties of ABS with the printability of PLA, and, while it is currently sold-out on the Polymaker shop, the reviews so far attest to those qualities. The material can be used to produce living hinges and threaded screws.

When placed into the PolySher, which uses a nebulizer to spray an aerosol of ethanol or isopropyl alcohol onto printed objects within a sealed vat, the results are pretty amazing. Unlike the effects of acetone when applied to ABS parts, the PolySher doesn't seem to erode the print as harshly, and instead erases all visible lines and leaves only an extremely polished part.

ProMatte PLA

Polymaker also partnered with Type A Machines to create a material called ProMatte PLA, which is designed to be highly receptive to post-processing procedures like sanding and tumbling. However, the material also has a great finish right off of the printbed. As the name suggests, it has a matte finish compared to traditional PLA, which has a glossy finish. ProMatte PLA is also tougher than traditional PLA and can survive a bit more bending before breaking. Type A Machines suggests that the material can even withstand a torch that might be used to remove strings and other features.

The matte finish of ProMatte. (Image courtesy of Type A Machines.)
The matte finish of ProMatte. (Image courtesy of Type A Machines.)

(Any?) Nylon from taulman3D

taulman3D was among the first filament manufacturers to bring new functionality to the desktop 3D printing materials market. With the release of Taulman 618, it became possible to 3D print with nylon right on one's desktop, giving users a lightweight, yet strong and highly durable alternative to PLA and ABS.

plastic tchotchkes
plastic tchotchkes

Since then, taulman3D has released numerous formulations for various applications. Taulman 645, for instance, is even tougher than the flagship 618 material and is meant for more industrial uses, as it can withstand harsh chemicals and sanding. Bridge Nylon attempts to obtain some of the strength of Taulman 645, but is meant to be easier to print with, and PCTPE is a flexible, but difficult to print, nylon. Nylon 680 meets FDA criteria for food compatibility, and Alloy 910 is the strongest of the bunch.

Experimental Filaments from Kai Parthy

Like taulman3D, Kai Parthy introduced the world of desktop 3D printing to entirely new material formulations that would ultimately change the industry forever. Parthy was the first to develop both wood and stone composites, making it possible to 3D print objects that don’t look like plastic tchotchkes.

While other filament manufacturers took his ideas and ran, Parthy has continued to invent new filaments that come onto the market at steady intervals. For instance, POROLAY is Parthy's foam series of materials that come in four varieties ranging from the thin and fibrous LAY-TEKKKS to the more gel-like GEL-LAY. LAY-FOMM is a very fascinating material that is made up of a combination of an elastomer and polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). When submerged in water, the PVA is rinsed away, leaving only a soft and rubbery object.

Parthy's most recent filament is a reflective material that has a silver appearance in the day, but bounces light at night, making it ideal for 3D printing things like bike reflectors. Parthy actually invented and patented this material in the form of a spray paint in 1998.

The applications of these materials are not always obvious, but their unique properties will fit some project or another.

NinjaFlex and SemiFlex from NinjaTek

Perhaps the industry's most go-to flexible filament, NinjaFlex is known for its quality and, well, flexibility. Once you get the printing parameters down, this thermoplastic polyurethane can be used to 3D print insoles, controller buttons, the tires of an RC, watchbands and more. SemiFlex is NinjaTek's stiffer sibling, meant for applications like snap-fit parts and living hinges.

A 3D-printed clutch lever boot replacement for a 1963 Volvo station wagon made with NinjaFlex. (Image courtesy of NinjaTek.)
A 3D-printed clutch lever boot replacement for a 1963 Volvo station wagon made with NinjaFlex. (Image courtesy of NinjaTek.)

Carbon Fiber Composites

There are a wide variety of manufacturers of carbon fiber-filled filaments, so the material you pick may depend more on the base thermoplastic rather than the chopped carbon fiber within it. For instance, colorFabb's XT-CF20 is made up of Eastman Chemical's Amphora polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG)-modified co-polyester with 20 percent chopped carbon fiber, whereas Proto-pasta's Carbon Fiber PLA is a mix of the cornstarch-derived PLA and chopped carbon fiber.

An RC car 3D printed with XT-CF20. (Image courtesy of colorFabb.)
An RC car 3D printed with XT-CF20. (Image courtesy of colorFabb.)

Both Markforged and 3DXTECH make nylon filaments with chopped carbon fiber, but 3DXTECH also sells varieties that use PLA, ABS, PETG or PEEK as the base thermoplastic. While all of the above materials may be stronger than the base materials alone, PEEK, in particular, may be the strongest and most heat, chemical and moisture resistant of all.

Conductive Filaments

Conductive materials, such as Proto-pasta Conductive PLA, can be used to 3D print functional objects, such as an LED or touch sensor. Typically, these materials have limited conductivity, with Proto-pasta describing its material as having 115 ohm-cm of volume resistivity along the Z-axis and 30 ohm-cm across the X- and Y-axes. While it may not be enough to power your house, it could be enough to spark up a couple of LEDs.

Co-Polyester Filaments

taulman3D is also a leader in developing co-polyester filaments, releasing t-glase as a translucent alternative to PLA and ABS. This material has been modified in a number of ways for various applications, such as 3D printing large objects with TECH-G or fine details with guideline. taulman3D has also partnered with materials giant Eastman Chemical to develop n-vent, a material made with Eastman’s PETG co-polyester (Amphora 1800). This filament is meant to be easily printable, but without the toxic odor of ABS.

Prints made with taulman3D’s t-glase material. (Image courtesy of taulman3D.)
Prints made with taulman3D’s t-glase material. (Image courtesy of taulman3D.)

Eastman has also worked with colorFabb to incorporate Amphora 1800 into its colorFabb XT line and Amphora 3300 into its nGen line, which has a higher gloss and is meant to be easier to print with than similar filaments.

Polycarbonate

Polycarbonate is among the stronger materials mentioned on this list. Tough, temperature resistant and transparent, the material offers great mechanical properties for a range of applications that require strength. Just check out the video below:

Eco-Friendly Filaments

Much of the materials in this list may be great for functional applications, but they may not be ideal for the environment. Even biodegradable materials like PLA and HIPS only degrade more quickly when processed in industrial composting facilities. There are, however, more eco-friendly alternatives. For instance, German filament manufacturer twoBEars only manufactures biodegradable materials made from renewable sources. 3DFuel produces filaments from waste by-products, including coffee grounds and hemp.

The 3D printing material market is only just getting warmed up and we’ve already come such a long way since only PLA and ABS were available for desktop 3D printers. In the future, it's not impossible to imagine the ability to 3D print fullyfunctional objects with entry-level 3D printers.

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