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The Comprehensive Guide to 3D Printing Materials

3D printing materials

If you’re new to Additive Manufacturing, the range of 3D printing materials can be overwhelming. Read our comprehensive guide.

For decades, industrial production was centered on injection molding of plastics. With the advent of Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), many thermoplastics were adapted to work with 3D printing. Research also led to the development of a mind-boggling array of new materials.

One of the advantages of additive manufacturing is that you don’t have to do it yourself. There are several great 3D printing services which do an excellent job on manufacturing your designs (more here). If you want to dig in deeper, there are interesting home and semi-professional 3D printers to fulfil your needs.

But.. what 3D printing materials should you choose for the job?

Sorry to say, but “it depends”. For instance, when printing off a food container, you will want to use a 3D printing material that is food-safe, like PETG. If you want to test your design for injection molding on a small scale, you don’t have to use expensive metal since there are thermoplastic options, (Nylon). The pharmaceutical industry benefits from a range of biocompatible 3D printing materials.

Other additive manufacturing technologies, such as Binder Jetting or Stereolithography, have expanded the spectrum of 3D printing materials drastically. Automated many tasks that for centuries lay in the hand of artisans alone, can now be performed by anyone with the proper training in 3D modeling and 3D printing.  Take for example the wide range of possibilities for producing full-color concept models, architectural models, and visual arts projects: Paper (SDL), Sandstone (Binder Jetting), and Resin (PolyJet). So in a way, 3D printing materials have led to a democratization of rapid prototyping design concepts.

Metal 3D printing materials have enabled shapes and applications that had been unthinkable before. Now it is a common practice for the aerospace industry to produce complex designs in a singular part that use less material, are lightweight, and as a consequence, use less fuel when compared to traditionally manufactured parts.

3D Printing Materials: The Choice is Yours

In order to stay on top the many 3D printing materials options, you have to factor in the application, function, and design of your component or product.  To determine which 3D printing material and 3D printing technology meet best your project’s needs we have compiled the following list. In order to expedite your search, we provide three tables that allow you to filter material according to their possible applications, their properties, and the possible 3D printing technologies. From the tables, you can jump to the materials for the details.

Take note, in this article, we focus on commercially available materials. That means we have excluded materials that you cannot buy from the shelve, such as food and biomaterials.

The 3D printing materials on this list are available in a broad range of forms. With plastics being the most widely adopted – you can get it as filament, resin, granules, and powder form. For every material, we will specify the technology in which it can be used.

If you want to learn more about 3D printing technologies in general, read our concise guide on the subject:
3D Printing Technology Guide: 9 Basic Types of 3D Printers


3D Printing Materials: Applications

These are the most common applications for 3D printing materials.

Material Concept Models Visual Arts Functional Models Medical Manufacturing Jewelry Tooling General Manufacturing Automotive & Aerospace Manufacturing Support Material
Nylon
ABS
PLA
PET
PETG
Alumide
PVA
HIPS
PEEK
ULTEM
“Metal”-Filament
Stainless Steel
Aluminum
Titanium
Precious Metals
Nickel
Cobalt Chromium
Copper
Bronze
Ceramics
Wax
Paper
Sandstone
SLA Resins
PolyJet Resins

3D Printing Materials: Properties

This table can help you to get deeper into the properties of your 3D printing materials.

Material Strong Lightweight Smooth surface High resolution Flexible Full-color Fragile Bio-compatible Food-Safe Heat resistant Chemically resistant Weather-resistant Hardly inflammable Corrosion resistant Hard wearing Soluble
Nylon
ABS
PLA
PET ✕✕
PETG
Alumide
PVA
HIPS
PEEK ✕✕
ULTEM ✕✕
“Metal”-Filament
Stainless Steel
Aluminum
Titanium ✕✕
Precious Metals
Nickel
Cobalt Chromium
Copper
Bronze
Ceramics
Wax
Paper
Sandstone
SLA Resins ✕✕
PolyJet Resins ✕✕

3D Printing Materials: Technologies

Of course, 3D printing materials can be used in different additive manufacturing technologies.

Material FDM SLS SLA Binder Jetting Powder Bed Fusion Lost Wax Casting Direct Metal Laser Sintering SDL Resin
Nylon
ABS
PLA
PET
PETG
Alumide
PVA
HIPS
PEEK
ULTEM
“Metal”-Filament
Stainless Steel
Aluminum
Titanium
Precious Metals
Nickel
Cobalt Chromium
Copper
Bronze
Ceramics
Wax
Paper
Sandstone
SLA Resins
PolyJet Resins

3D Printing Materials: Plastics

Today, most consumer products are made from thermoplastics. This is where 3D printing plastic materials come into play. Designers and engineers prefer to create functional prototypes using 3D printing materials that have the same or very similar properties as the materials used in injection molding, the technology used to create the finished product.

Most of the thermoplastics materials can be used in home 3D printing and professional applications alike. The only difference is that professionals are leaning towards Laser Sintering the materials instead of using the Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF). 


3D Printing Materials: Nylon (Polyamide)

Given its flexibility and strength, Nylon is the premier choice for a wide range of applications from engineering to the arts. Often it is simply referred to as “white plastic” – it’s your staple 3D printing material! Nylon prints have a rough surface that can be polished smooth. Among FDM filaments, the layer bonding of nylon is stronger than all others making it the ideal material for parts that require good tensile and mechanical strength. Like other thermoplastics, Nylon degrades from humidity in the surrounding air – if you want to use it for home 3D printing, better store it in airtight containers or bags.

Technologies: FDM, SLS

Properties: Strong, Smooth surface (polished), Somewhat flexible, Chemically resistant

Applications: Concept Models, Functional Models, Medical Applications, Tooling, Visual Arts

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: ABS Desktop 3D printers use ABS - a material also used in Lego bricks (source: Wikipedia)

Remember the quality of Lego bricks? Then you can relate to why ABS plastic is one the most popular thermoplastics for desktop 3D printing today.

It is readily affordable, strong and lightweight. ABS filament comes in a broad range of colors. There have been concerns about the fumes that ABS emit when reaching its melting point. If you worry about the toxicity of ABS fumes, there are alternatives like PLA. As ABS is 3D printed at 220° to 250° C, it is advisable to use a heated printing bed to control the cooling of the material and prevent warping. Also, ABS filament degrades from humidity in the surrounding air – store it in vacuum bags or containers.

Learn more about ABS:

ABS 3D Printer Filament (Explained and Compared)

Technologies: FDM, Binder Jetting, SLA, PolyJetting

Properties: Strong, Light, High resolution, Somewhat flexible

Applications: Architectural Models, Concept Models, Manufacturing

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: PLA PLA 3D printer filament

Another crowd favorite is PLA, a cornstarch derivative (but sugar cane and tapioca varieties can also be found), making it biodegradable. It‘s an easy material to print with. Also, PLA emits a pleasant sweet fragrance when heated. For this reason, many people prefer it over ABS. Moreover, it is a suitable 3D printing material for food contact (PET being the first choice, though) and it contracts less than ABS when cooling. On the downside, PLA is less durable than ABS and susceptible to heat. So, for parts that need for engineering purposes, you will be better off with ABS. PLA is available in a broad range of colors. In addition, there are varieties that have added fibers, giving it the appearance of wood or metal. Like ABS filament, PLA degrades from humidity in the ambient air – store it in vacuum bags or containers.

Don’t miss:

PLA Filament Guide 2017 - 32 Best PLA Filament Blends

Technologies: FDM, SLA, SLS

Properties: Biodegradable, Food safe

Applications: Concept Models, Functional Models, Manufacturing

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: PET PET filament

The second alternative to ABS is called PET – the material water bottles are made of. Unlike ABS, PET does not emit odorous fumes when melted but it is just as strong and flexible. More importantly, PET does not require a heated bed. This 3D printing material has a glossy finish and is food safe which makes it a popular choice for many consumer products. Store PET in vacuum bags or containers to protect it against humidity.

Technologies: FDM

Properties: Strong, Food safe, Flexible, Smooth surface

Applications: Manufacturing, Functional models

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: PETG

PETG is a variant of PET that has been combined with glycol to achieve a number of desirable effects for 3D printing such as high transparency. Moreover, PETG can be printed at lower temperatures while increasing its flow speed (up to 100 mm/s) which in turn translates into speedier prints. PETG components are weather-resistant and are thus often used for garden appliances. Another selling point is its use as a food-safe 3D printing material for containers etc. When using for home 3D printing, store this 3D printing material in vacuum bags or containers to protect it against humidity.

Don’t miss:

PETG Filament for 3D Printing: Explained & Compared

Technologies: FDM

Properties: Strong, Food-safe, Weather-resistant, Hardly inflammable

Applications: Concept Models, Functional Models, Manufacturing

Price: $$ (affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: Alumide Dyed Alumide imaterialise

Alumide is a variation of nylon that has been combined with aluminum particles. In terms of durability and physical properties, it is very similar to nylon. The difference is found in the shiny, durable and porous surface finish. Components printed with Alumide have an excellent size accuracy, are tough and suitable for long term use. This 3D printing material is highly suitable for various post-processing techniques like polishing or coating.

Technologies: SLS

Properties: Strong, Heat resistant, High Resolution

Applications: Functional Prototypes, Manufacturing

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: PVA water_soluble_pva_before

PVA is a 3D printing material that has been engineered for use as a soluble support material. While other support materials require special chemicals to dissolve, PVA is soluble in tap water. Given its purpose, it is no wonder that this material is susceptible to environmental influences – store it in airtight containers or bags.

Technologies: FDM

Properties: Soluble

Applications: Support material

Price: $ (very affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: HIPS HIPS_dissolvable_filament

HIPS has two applications: It is often used as a support material in FDM and SLA printing. As it dissolves in Limonene, a skin irritating chemical. Since the two share similar properties, HIPS works best when used in conjunction with ABS. But, as the name High-Impact Polystyrene instantly gives away, HIPS is also an extremely durable 3D printing material that is suitable for shipping containers or other applications that require high impact resistance. Note that HIPS emits vapors when printed, so air the room while using this 3D printing material on a home printer. Like many other materials, it is susceptible to environmental influences – store it in airtight containers or bags.

Technologies: FDM, SLA

Properties: Soluble, Highly durable

Applications: Support material, Shipping containers

Price: $

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3D Printing Materials: PEEK / ULTEM prometheus system

PEEK and ULTEM are 3D printing materials designed for high-performance parts. Plastics of this family are highly resistant to stress, temperature, and chemicals. The catch about temperature resistance is that your 3D printer has to fire up to 400° C in order to extrude these 3D printing materials – a job better done by a professional 3D printing service. Besides the high price, this may be a no-go for you for safety concerns. Due to their robustness, PEEK / ULTEM plastics are used in the most demanding applications the automotive, aerospace, chemical and medical industries can muster. PEEK is also used for medical implants.

Technologies: FDM, SLS

Properties: Highly durable, Heat resistant, Bio-compatible

Applications: Manufacturing (Automotive, Aerospace, Chemical, and Medical industries)

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: Metal / Plastic Filament copperfill

All of the “Metal” filament sold on the market is actually thermoplastic that has been mixed with low amounts of metal. These 3D printing materials allow you to 3D print components that have the optical properties of 3D printed metal. Also, the metal-plastic-filament is heavier than other thermoplastics. Popular composite 3D printing materials include bronze, copper, steel, and iron. Be aware that your 3D printed parts will require post-processing to get the desired metal appearance.

Technologies: FDM

Properties: Metallic finish

Applications: Visual Arts

Price: $$ (affordable)

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3D Printing Materials: Metals

Metal 3D printing has become especially popular in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries for the ability to produce complex designs that don’t require additional welding or machining. The downside is that these 3D printing materials demand a lot more expertise in terms of engineering and composition than thermoplastics. On the whole, though, it pays off for these industries.

Also, you can’t print these 3D printing materials at home, as metal 3D printing needs high temperatures. 

If you want to learn more about Metal 3D Printing, read our extensive article:
Metal 3D Printer Guide 2017 - All About Metal 3D Printing

3D Printing Materials: Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is one of the most affordable metals in 3D printing. At the same time, it is very strong and can be used in a large variety of industrial and even artistic/design applications. This type of steel alloy, which also contains cobalt and nickel, is particularly hard to break while at the same time it has very excellent elastic and magnetic properties. In case you prefer another color, you can plate it to give it the appearance of, say, gold. This 3D printing material is used mostly for industrial applications.

Technologies: Direct Metal Deposition, Binder Jetting

Properties: High resolution, Corrosion resistant, Somewhat flexible, Strong

Applications: Tooling, Functional Models, Manufacturing

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: Aluminum

Because of its lightness and versatility, Aluminum is now a very popular 3D printing material that is found in a wide range of applications. It is used primarily as different Aluminum based alloys. Components made from Aluminum can feature thin walls and complex geometries. They are highly resistant to mechanical stress and high temperatures. This makes them suitable for low-cost prototypes, functional models such as motors, in the automotive and aerospace industries.

Technologies: Direct Metal Deposition, Binder Jetting

Properties: Light, Strong, Heat resistant, Corrosion resistant

Applications: Functional Models, Manufacturing (Automotive & Aerospace Industries)

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: Titanium

Pure Titanium powder is a commonly used metal for 3D printing. It is certainly one of the most versatile, as it is both strong and light. It is used both in powder bed fusion and binder jetting processes. You will mostly find it in high-performance medical applications – to make personalized prosthetics. Other applications include parts and prototypes for the aerospace, automotive, and tooling industries. Apart from the cost, there is another catch: It is a highly reactive 3D printing material, which means it can easily explode when it is in powder form. For this reason, it needs to be 3D printed in a vacuum or in an argon gas atmosphere.

Technologies: Powder Bed Fusion, Binder Jetting, Direct Metal Deposition

Properties: Bio-compatible, High resolution, Heat resistant, Highly durable

Applications: Tooling, Functional Models, Manufacturing (Automotive, Aerospace, Medical industries)

Price: $$$$ (expensive)

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3D Printing Materials: Nickel

Nickel alloys are popular 3D printing materials for technical applications. Nickel alloy components made using 3D printing are stronger and more durable when compared to nickel alloy parts made using traditional techniques such as casting. This, in turn, allows engineers to make the components thinner, resulting in e.g. more fuel efficient airplanes. Today there are many kinds of alloys that combine nickel’s properties with those of other metals (e.g. Monel or Inconel).

Technologies: Powder Bed Fusion, Direct Metal Deposition

Properties: Strong, Light

Applications: Manufacturing (Automotive & Aerospace industries)

Price: $$$$ (expensive)

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3D Printing Materials: Precious Metals (Gold, Silver, Platinum) Samples 3D printed in gold at Shapeways

Most powder bed fusion companies can 3D print with precious metals such as gold, silver, and platinum. The challenge here, along with maintaining the materials aesthetic properties, is to make sure that none of the precious powder is lost. That’s why you will mostly find parts that were made using the easier to control lost wax casting technique. Precious metals are 3D printing materials for jewelry, medical and electronics applications. Depending on the technology used, some of these materials also are cast. 

Technologies: Powder Bed Fusion, Lost Wax Casting, Binder Jetting

Properties: High resolution, Smooth surface

Applications: Jewelry, Dentistry, Functional Models

Price: $$$$$ (very expensive)

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3D Printing Materials: Cobalt Chromium

Cobalt Chromium is sometimes called a “super alloy”. This 3D printing material is mostly used in medical applications and the components for the aerospace industry, like turbines or jet engines. It stands out for excellent properties such as strength, but also its temperature and corrosion resistance, yet still suitable for components with fine features.

Technologies: Direct Metal Laser Sintering, SLM

Properties: Bio-compatible, Strong, Corrosion resistant, Heat resistant, Hard wearing, Low conductivity

Applications: Manufacture (Medical & Aerospace industries)

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: Copper and Bronze

Apart from some exceptions, copper and bronze are mostly used for lost wax casting processes and less often in powder bed fusion processes. For their electric conductivity, these 3D printing materials are found in electrical engineering. But they also draw a large following in the arts and crafts community.

Technologies: Lost Wax Casting, Powder Bed Fusion, Direct Metal Deposition

Properties: Conductive, Hard wearing

Applications: Manufacturing (Electrical engineering), Visual Arts

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: Ceramics

SONY DSC

Ceramics have broadened the applicability of 3D printing for everyday use to the point that custom ceramics like coffee mugs have become staple items for online 3D printing services. But with dedicated extruder systems like WASP’s Clay Extruder Kit 2.0, ceramics is now also a viable 3D printing material for home use. The clay is made up of fine-grained particles, other minerals and a certain amount of water that give some plasticity to the material.

When a ceramic part has been printed off it is then turned into solid pottery in a kiln. The water evaporates and the particles melt into each other, setting the shape and increasing the strength of a given component. For a glossy finish, it is covered in glaze and then kilned a second time. Ceramic 3D prints can be made using like humble FDM to more sophisticated methods like SLA. Wannabe potters can choose between varieties of glass, porcelain, and silicon-carbide. Pottery stands out as heat resistant and hard wearing 3D printing material that is nowadays mostly used in the arts, for tableware and dental implants.

Don’t miss:

Technologies: FDM, Binder Jetting, SLA

Properties: Heat resistant, Fragile, Porous surface, Hard wearing

Applications: Visual Arts, Manufacturing (Tableware, Dentistry)

Price: $$ (affordable)

3D Printing Materials: Wax

Wax prints are usually not the end product, but an essential stage in the production process. As they are used to produce molds with stunning high resolution (0.025mm) for the lost wax casting technique of metal components. Today it is often employed to create customizable jewelry at a comparatively low price. The second industry that uses this 3D printing material is the dental medicine industry. You can 3D print complex structures that require supports by using waxes of different melting points and melting the supports off at low temperatures.

Technologies: SLA, PolyJet

Properties: High resolution, Smooth surface

Applications: Manufacturing (Jewelry, Dentistry)

Price: $ (very affordable)

3D Printing Materials: Paper

With Selective Deposition Lamination good old copy paper from the office store around the corner has found its niche in 3D printing. SDL parts have a wood-like feel and are fully colored, making them a popular choice for architectural and other conceptual models. On the downside, SDL parts are less durable than parts made with any other technology and you won’t get the same level of detail as with other 3D printing materials like PolyJet Resins or gypsum.

Technologies: Selective Deposition Lamination

Properties: Cost-effective, Easy to recycle, Full-color

Applications: Conceptual Models, Visual Arts

Price: $$

3D Printing Materials: Sandstone

Variously referred to as “gypsum”, or “multicolor”, sandstone is one of the 3D printing technologies able to create spectacular full-color parts in one process. To enhance the quality of the colors and add strength the part is coated with a protective layer of epoxy resin. Since sandstone parts that are exposed to water will discolor, leaving you with a muddy white model. Also, components made from this 3D printing material are as fragile as porcelain. Allowances for the materials weakness should be made already during the design process. Considering the finicky nature of sandstone, it comes as no surprise that it is mostly used for architectural models, conceptual prototypes and art projects.

Technologies: FDM, Binder Jetting, Powder Bed Jetting

Properties: Fragile, Full-color

Applications: Conceptual Models, Visual Arts

Price: $$ (affordable)

3D Printing Materials: Resins (Photopolymers)

3D Printed Porcelite Ceramic Resin results (Image: Nervous System)
(Image: Nervous System)

Photopolymers are a range of liquid resins that solidify to plastic components and prototypes when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) or visible light. The two main technologies current today are SLA (Stereolithography) and PolyJet. SLA works using a UV laser that traces the shape of an object onto the surface of a photopolymer vat and the resin congeals to form a layer of the object. This operation is repeated for every layer until the object is complete.

PolyJet, on the other hand, follows another approach: A printer head jets a drop of resin onto a bed that is instantly cured by an attached UV lamp. SLA printers deliver a layer height of about 0.1 mm at its best, while PolyJet can 3D print as fine as 16 microns. Although both methods are similar and use similar raw 3D printing materials, they differ widely in how these materials are can be harnessed. All photopolymers are susceptible to sunlight.

3D Printing Materials: SLA Resins SLA printers such as the MoonRay use resin.

Many SLA resins were designed to simulate the different properties of “traditional” 3D printing materials mentioned above: You can find a material that is comparable to wax and is used to create wax molds in investment casting. If you need bio-compatible properties there is an SLA thermoplastic that is very similar to PLA. Other SLA plastics can be as durable like ABS.  Also, there is a composite material that has properties of ceramics – after printing you can kiln it and use it like a ceramic part.

Resins are an excellent choice for functional and concept models. This 3D printing material is particularly suited to producing large parts in a short span of time, while still maintaining a high degree of detail. Some resins are even strong enough to be machined after curing. Also, high-temperature resins are a cost effective means to produce injection molds for small scale production of prototypes. The popularity of SLA resins stems from its superior speed and accuracy. The downside is that resin is still substantially costlier than other 3D printing materials.

SLA 3D printers are available commercially and also for home / small office use. They offer an interesting range of semi-professional 3D printing materials

Technologies: SLA

Properties: Smooth surface, Somewhat flexible

Applications: Conceptual Models, Functional Models, Visual Arts, Tooling (Prototypes)

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

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3D Printing Materials: PolyJet Resins

Like SLA resins, PolyJet materials simulate different properties of “traditional” 3D printing materials. Most of the materials available have quite descriptive names, Rigur, for instance, is a 3D printing material designed for strength. It is also dubbed “Simulated Propylene” for its similar surface finish and functionality. A range of materials is marketed as “Digital ABS”, meaning they are both heat resistant and tough. “Rubber-Like” materials were designed for non-slip surfaces, vibration dampening overmolding. Because of the large range, we have decided to forgo a detailed account of every material. (For more PolyJet materials refer to our table below.)

But, the major difference between PolyJet and SLA resins lies in the ability to produce what Stratasys calls “Digital Materials”: The combination of up to three materials to create new and custom materials that have the optimal blend of properties (durability, heat resistance, transparency, etc.) for a given part with the full range of colors. This opens up avenues for many new applications. While other 3D printing materials can produce a visual approximation of the finished product, PolyJet parts can also convincingly simulate its touch and feel.

PolyJet Resins are an excellent choice for color prototypes of consumer products, for testing with consumer groups. Depending on the materials chosen and the desired application it is possible to produce functional models using these 3D printing materials, such as form and fit testing. Also, PolyJet Resins are the only 3D printing materials able to simulate overmolded parts. Some varieties of PolyJet resin are suitable for mold-making. Others are used for high-resolution parts that are a perfect fit for visual prototypes, models, props etc.

Technologies: PolyJet

Properties: High resolution, Smooth surface, Flexible, Heat resistant, Transparent (see table)

Applications: Conceptual Models, Visual Arts, Jewelry, Medical Manufacturing, Tooling (Prototypes)

Price: $$$ (reasonable)

Material Concept Models Functional Models Tooling Medical Manufacturing Visual Arts Support Material General Manufacturing
Opaque/Rigid (Vero)
Translucent
Rigid
High Temp
Digital ABS
Rubber-
Like
Performance Digital
Bio-
compatible
Support
Dental Material

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