The Right Choice for Filament

3D Printing Filament Buyers Guide

3d printing filament

To find the best 3d printing filament for your needs, there are many things you should consider. Here are the most important questions answered.

If you buy 3D printing filament, it’s not created equal. Even slight change in color implies different settings for your machine. Just imagine how many differences there are between materials. They are mostly related to what it is that you need to make and the properties you want your 3d printing object to have.

3D Printing Filament Question #1: What Are You Printing?

3D Benchy, 3D Printing Filament

Even desktop and home 3D printers below €5,000 are now capable of 3D printing with many technical and advanced materials. This means that there are many different types of objects you could 3D print.

If you just need to make a visual prototype just to look at the shape you have designed, all you need is basic PLA. It‘s the most affordable material you can print with and the easiest to use. You can use PLA also for basic toys, tablet stands and other “temporary” products that do not need to undergo particular stresses.

PLA is also relatively food-safe, which means you can make a cup or egg holder with it. Just refrain from eating directly from a PLA plate. Just keep in mind it is not going to last very long (and that you cannot put it in the dishwasher).

If you are going to make a functional product that needs to last a while you will need to use nylon image: Taulman3D)
If you are going to make a functional product that needs to last a while you will need to use nylon image: Taulman3D)

If you need to make a functional prototype (i.e. for an engineering product), ABS 3D printing filament should do the trick. In this case you are going to need a 3D printer with additional features such as a heated plate and an enclosed print space to reduce the risk of deformation. You can use ABS for many final consumer products as well, such as drone parts or GoPro accessories.

But there are drawbacks. Just keep in mind that ABS deteriorates with sunlight. In all cases, if you want your print to withstand serious stresses, have even more elasticity and resist sunlight, you are going to use nylon filament, i.e. from taulman3D. Here though, the requirements on your 3D printer are even higher. Most nylons are extruded at temperatures above 245°C and have a really hard time sticking to the plate.

There are products – such as colorFabb’s XT (copolyester) range, several technical materials from Laywood’s inventor Kay Parthy and the “plastic extrusion gurus” at TreeD Filaments, that are both easy to print, durable and generally food safe. But they cost slightly more.

If you are going to make something that only needs to look nice, such as an artistic or decorative piece, then you might want to buy composite 3D printing filament containing wood, metals (like copper, iron or bronze), minerals, and even hemp and beer particles (like the ones from Kanesis). These are generally easy to print. But you will often need to have a heated plate and – possibly – a controlled temperature inside the print chamber.


3D Printing Filament Question #2: Which 3D Printer Do You Use?

Ultimaker 2 Extended print 2

Before you buy 3D printing filament, you need to assess the capabilities of your printer. First of all, you need to make sure it is an open printer, which means it can use third party materials. The latest MakerBots, Zortrax, Cube and XYZPrinting machines need to use only proprietary filaments, but the good news is that all their settings are automated.

Some newer desktop 3D printers are able to 3D print with super-strong and versatile materials like PEEK (image: Indmatec)
Some newer desktop 3D printers are able to 3D print with super-strong and versatile materials like PEEK (image: Indmatec)

The temperature your extruder reach is another important factor. For PLA and ABS you need 180° to 220°C. If you want to work with nylon, you will have to go above 240°C. Other, more technical, materials (such as those containing graphene or carbon fiber) require temperatures as high as 300°. Lately some desktop 3D printers have been presented that can reach temperatures close to 400°, meaning they can work with extreme polymers such as PEEK and ULTEM, which are super stress and temperature resistant.

Of course, the higher the temperature the higher is the plate temperature required. That’s because the higher the extrusion temperature, the faster the material will cool down (and shrink) as you print it. If you have a 3D printer without a heated plate then the only  filament you can use is PLA. If the required temperature is even higher, you will also need to have and enclosed printing chamber. High-performance plastics currently require a sealed chamber. At this time, this is a Stratasys patent. However, some new desktop 3D printers, like the ones from Roboze and Indamatec, are finding ways to work around this requirement.

Rubber materials do not have very high requirements regarding extrusion and plate temperature. But they need an extrusion system tha’s built to keep the material from getting bent and stuck inside the feeding section. Filaflex manufacturer Recreus’s extruder and the BQ 3D printer are ideal for these 3D printing materials.

3D Printing Filament Question #3: How Much Do You Want to Spend?

shut-up-and-take-my-money-futurama-fry
Conductive graphene filament can run you as much as $1,100 for 1 Kg (image: BlackMagic3D)
Conductive graphene filament can run you as much as $1,100 for 1 Kg (image: BlackMagic3D)

The third issue is, of course, the money you want to spend on your 3D printing filaments. There are many different degrees of PLA and ABS out there. Some filaments mass produced in China are running for as little as €15 for 1 kilogram. This often means the material doesn’t have an entirely even diameter. If often clogs in the extruder or in the bowden tube. It could also mean that it contains toxic additives so you should check it carefully.

In general, composite wood, metal and mineral 3D printing filaments are more expensive (up to €50 per kg). That‘s because they require more research and development. In the case of graphene and carbon fiber, the cost of the additives go up to €1,100 per kilogram. For example, BlackMagic’s conductive graphene-based filament will run you $55 for a 100-gram spool. On the other hand colorFabb’s carbon fiber reinforced filament costs around €50 for a 750-gram spool.

3D Printing Filament Question #4: How Much Are You Going To Need?

3dbenchy

Before you buy 3D printing filament spools, you should try to figure out how much your part will require to make. To do that you can either look up suggestions from the product’s designer’s page (if you downloaded it) from Thingiverse or MyMiniFactory.

If you designed it yourself, you will have to create the gcode. After that most 3D printer’s software will tell you how much time and filament (in grams and/or meters) your design will require.

3D Printing Filament Question #5: How Can You Try Out Filament?

Printing in multiple colours is easy

Still unsure about what the best 3d printing filament is for your project? Fortunately there are online outlets that let you order just samples or small segments of material for just spare change.

GlobalFSD sampling service is one of the best way to test filaments without spending a lot (image: GlobalFSD)
GlobalFSD sampling service is one of the best ways to test filament without spending a lot (image: GlobalFSD)

The best known among them is probably GlobalFSD, which has partnerships in place with just about every major filament manufacturer and offers samples measuring 5 or 10 meters at prices ranging from £0,95 to no more than £5.

Another interesting option to get to know your filaments is Proto Crate, a subscription service that will deliver different filament and design suggestions every month for around $60. This clearly is not a way to save money as much as a mean to gain a better understanding of the materials available and their possibilities without having to do all the research yourself.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to spend the time, you will often find filament manufacturers (here you will find a fairly complete list of them) that offer special packages with a selection of materials. Recently 3DFilo offered a special package, including four 10 meter samples of its filaments, charging only the shipping costs (€8,95). The ways of filament are truly infinite, and new materials are “invented” all the time.

So if the perfect filament for your project is not available yet, it probably will be soon.