3D printers have come a long way in a reasonably short period of time. Since their advent in the 1980’s they have started to push their way into the retail market rather than being just used by manufacturers. The variety of printers and printing materials now available mean that it can be a slightly impenetrable world for some of us. That is where this beginner’s guide comes into play. Let’s break down what you should be looking for to understand some of the differences between the different types of printers.
One of the most common ways in which 3D printers work is by taking a filament, thermoplastic or other material and printing a 3D model by placing layers of that material on top of one another. The two most frequently used printing materials are PLA and ABS. These are both thermoplastics but whilst they share some similarities there are some distinct features which each of them possess.
PLA is an abbreviation for polylactic acid. It is biodegradable and so it is made up from natural sources like corn starch and tapioca. Due to this it has applications within medicine as it can be used to make implants which will naturally break down after they are no longer needed rather than having to be physically removed. It can also be used for food packaging, nappies and upholstery.
ABS or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene is a highly modifiable printing material and has increased flexibility over PLA. It can be machined and sanded easily as well as being easy to weld together with acetone. It is usually favoured when it comes to mechanical applications. Due to the way it has to be heated whilst printing it gives off a noxious smell and must be used in a ventilated area. It is prone to curling and so it can be less precise at creating sharp edges.
Various metals can now be used as printing materials. Stainless steel is seeing a lot of use due to its strength. Titanium is widely seen as the strongest metal available in metal 3D printing and is used for industrial purposes or parts needing extreme levels of stress tolerance such as on airplanes. Precious metals such as gold and silver are now being used in the jewellery sector and like the other metals used in 3D printing they are used in a powdered form.
It has recently become possible to 3D print with ceramics. As with standard ceramic production once it has been printed out the item will need to be fired and glazed.
A number of other materials which can be used are gypsum, resin, nylon and even bio materials such as human tissue. Each have particular applications but are less commonly used than the above materials. If you are a home user the most common 3D printing materials are PLA and ABS so when people look to buy 3D printers for their personal use they are most likely to end up choosing between these two.