Thermoplastic 3D Printing
When a project demands unrivalled strength, thermoplastics are unbeatable.
With their unrivalled strength and endless applications across the gamut of global industry, thermoplastics are a cornerstone of 3D printing. Here’s what you need to know about these revolutionary materials, the benefits of the best-known types and their far-reaching uses.
The revolutionary materials behind the toughest 3D print projects
Cast an eye over the consumer products manufactured around the world using 3D printing and you’ll see that thermoplastics are everywhere. There’s a good reason for that. When modern engineers come to design a fresh product, the best way to predict the real-world performance of the final product is to create a prototype made from as similar a material as possible.
That’s where thermoplastics prove themselves invaluable, allowing engineers to optimise their designs using an eye-opening spectrum of thermoplastics that includes ABS, polycarbonate and countless blends. And that’s before you even broach the thermoplastics specially engineered for aerospace, medical, automotive, electronic and other specialty applications.
Thermoplastics aren’t just for prototyping, though: they’re often a non-negotiable choice for finished products, too, boasting unique properties that range from transparency, biocompatibility and FST certification to chemical resistance and thermal resistance. But as we’ll discover, perhaps the defining quality of a great thermoplastic is its unrivalled strength.
How thermoplastics are used for FDM 3D printing
At a fundamental level, additive manufacturing (AM) employs a layer-based process to convert computer designs into plastic parts. Direct from computer-aided design (CAD) files, automated machines add material layer-by-layer – which makes it easy to produce highly complex parts at speed and volume.
When it comes to the FDM process, meanwhile, a wide range of industrial-grade thermoplastics are used, including high-performance engineered materials. These thermoplastics are made from the same raw stock as injection moulding materials, and they’re suitable for applications ranging from initial concept modelling right through to product development and final manufacturing.
Selecting the optimal thermoplastics for 3D printing
Just as with moulded parts, there are a wide variety of thermoplastic options out there, each one offering unique characteristics designed with a specific application in mind. When choosing, remember that material stability and durable performance are key, before carefully considering the mechanical, thermal, electrical and chemical properties – alongside any changes that result from ageing or environmental exposure.
In additive manufacturing, the process dictates the materials used – and vice-versa – meaning that it’s often relatively straightforward to establish which thermoplastic suits an application. The critical point is understanding the properties that make each FDM material unique. When choosing, you should always consider the following points:
- Material characteristics
- FDM machine availability
- Support material type
To select the optimal thermoplastic, weigh up the best combination of these material characteristics while keeping in mind your overall priorities. As you analyse the resulting shortlist, you may find that a given material demands to be used due to a critical performance standard (eg. chemical inertness) or personal preference (eg. no-touch post processing).
All FDM materials have qualities in common. Each material has common ground when it comes to loading and building parts, office compatibility (and safe enough that they can be handled without protective gear). Meanwhile, the parts produced by each material are dimensionally stable and sufficiently durable for the most demanding applications.
Benefits of ABS for 3D Printing
ABS is one of the most common thermoplastics and a cornerstone of the FDM process (in fact, it’s the most commonly used material in FDM machines). That’s no surprise when you take a closer look at its properties. ABS materials make a winning choice for models, prototypes, patterns, tools and end-use parts alike, boasting strength that is 40-60% improved over the FDM materials of recent memory, with greater tensile, impact and flexural strength.
Specific to Stratasys’ Fortus range of 3D printers, ABS-M30 is the plastic formulation regularly used in the FDM process.
In raw filament form, these materials are identical with equal mechanical properties. But it’s worth drilling into the data sheets, with ABSplus and ABS-M30 showing differences in finished part material properties. As with moulded parts, processing has an impact, with the advanced hardware and software of Fortus 3D printers processing the materials differently. The resulting material properties achievable from ABS-M30 are improved (while ABSplus produces tough parts, ABS-M30 is generally stronger in all categories).
Both materials produce parts that are stable, strong and durable, while both are available in a range of colours including white, black, red, blue, green and fluorescent yellow. Another common quality of these FDM mainstays is that they are easy to finish. As with most additive manufacturing processes, FDM machines use a sacrificial support structure to build the part, but the ABS materials have something few others do: no-touch support removal. A soluble support material eliminates manual labour. Parts are placed in a tank and the supports are dissolved away.
The surface finish of ABSplus and ABS-M30 parts is more than adequate for concept modelling, functional prototyping and creating manufacturing tools. If the application is for master patterns, marketing models or finished goods, and the user wants a surface finish similar to that of injection moulding, FDM has an optional hands-free smoothing process in the form of the Finishing Touch Smoothing Station that can smooth parts in less than a minute.
Benefits of ABS-ESD7 for 3D Printing
Available for FDM, ABS-ESD7 is an electrostatic dissipative material produced by Stratasys. This thermoplastic prevents the buildup of static electricity, making it perfect for applications where a static charge can damage products, compromise performance or risk an explosion. As such, ABS-ESD7 is ideal for carriers and organisers for electrical components, fixtures for electronic component assembly and production line and conveyor parts. Other applications include product design and validation for electronic product enclosures, electronics packaging materials and powder or mist conveying or dispensing.
Alongside those benefits, ABS-ESD7 also prevents another familiar issue of static electricity, namely, the attraction and buildup of particulate, such as dust or powders, which can degrade product performance. Additionally, ABS-ESD7 doesn’t attract atomised liquid, which explains why it is used for asthma inhalers (which must deliver the entire drug dose to the patient and not leave mist on the inhaler’s internal surfaces). All mechanical properties of ABS-ESD7 are within 5% of the ratings for ABS-M30.
Benefits of ABS-M30i for 3D Printing
All equipment used in the medical, pharmaceutical and food handling industries is governed by strict regulations to ensure consumers are protected from illness and disease (these include standards such as ISO 10993 and USP Class VI, which classify a material as biocompatible). Specifically designed to meet these criteria, ABS-M30i can be used for products that come into contact with skin, food and medications.
The trump card of ABS-M30i is that it blends strength with sterilisation ability (another key consideration for any product that comes into contact with our bodies and anything we ingest). ABS M30i can be sterilised using either gamma radiation or ethylene oxide (Eta) sterilisation methods.
Benefits of ABSi for 3D Printing
The key advantage of ABSi lies in its translucency. While this thermoplastic boasts strong mechanical properties, it excels in lighting applications – explaining why ABSi is widely used for functional evaluation of lenses for items including automotive lighting. The popularity of ABSi for lens application is evident in its colour options (red, amber and natural). It’s invaluable, too, for monitoring material flow in applications that process or transfer material in powder or bulk solid form.
Benefits of ASA for 3D Printing
Renowned as a great all-round thermoplastic, ASA (acrylonitrile styrene acrylate) has improved mechanical properties over ABS, and one important difference (UV stability). ASA builds UV-stable parts that won’t degrade with prolonged exposure to sunlight, plus it offers some of the best aesthetics of any FDM thermoplastic. Easy in operation and very reliable, ASA is ideal for automotive parts, sporting goods, outdoor functional prototyping and end-use parts for outdoor infrastructure and commercial use (eg. electrical housings). ASA’s superior mechanical properties and aesthetics are also ideal for general-purpose prototyping. Additionally, its ten colour choices are more than any other FDM.
Benefits of Polycarbonate (PC) for 3D Printing
Polycarbonate (PC) is the most widely used industrial thermoplastic and offers key benefits including excellent mechanical properties and heat resistance. Of all the FDM materials, it has the second-highest tensile strength, alongside a high heat deflection temperature of 280°F (138°C). It all makes PC a rugged material for tough applications like functional testing, tooling or production.
Benefits of PC-ABS for 3D Printing
This blend of polycarbonate and ABS has been carefully considered to offer the most desirable properties of both materials. As such, you’ll find the competitive mechanical properties and heat resistance of PC (including one of the highest impact strength ratings of all the FDM materials), matched by the high flexural strength, feature definition and surface appeal of ABS. As with all versions of ABS for FDM, PC-ABS offers the no-touch finishing option with soluble supports.
Benefits of PC-ISO for 3D Printing
As with ABS-M30i, PC-ISO is a biocompatible (ISO 10993 and USP Class VI) material, which has earned its status as the FDM alternative for medical, pharmaceutical and food packaging sectors. Another property that both materials share is that each is sterilisable using gamma radiation or ethylene oxide (Eta) methods.
PC-ISO is marked out by its higher tensile and flexural strength, alongside its higher heat deflection temperature (in these categories, its values are 33% to 59% higher than those of ABS-M30i).
Benefits of PLA for 3D Printing
A cost-effective option for fast-draft part iterations, available in translucent or opaque colours, PLA is a plastic material made chiefly from organic, renewable compounds (hence its reputation as a more environmentally friendly plastic option than inorganic plastics).
PLA has impressive tensile strength, a higher stiffness relative to ABS and strength that can be compared to polycarbonate. Due to its low melting point and HDT, less heat and power are needed for modelling.
PLA is often used successfully for quick concept verification and design validation, but other popular applications include early concept modelling, fast prototyping and metal part casting.
Benefits of ULTEM™ 9085 resin for 3D Printing*
Made by SABIC Innovative Plastics US LLC, and often found in aerospace products, ULTEM™ 9085 resin is one of three high-performance engineered thermoplastic materials available for FDM. As an FST rated material, ULTEM™ 9085 resin meets flame, smoke and toxicity standards, and when processed in a Fortus 3D printer, these FST characteristics remain unchanged. As such, it’s often chosen by transportation companies that must adhere to stringent requirements.
Also available in certified grade, this option offers full production traceability in compliance with stringent aerospace certification requirements. Even for applications that don’t require FST rating, this material should not be overlooked: with its strength, durability and resistance to heat and chemicals, ULTEM™ 9085 resin is as tough as they come, boasting well-rounded thermal, mechanical and chemical properties that mark it out from the pack. No wonder it’s one of the fastest-growing FDM materials.
Benefits of ULTEM™ 1010 resin for 3D Printing*
Also produced by SABIC Innovative Plastics US LLC, ULTEM™ 1010 resin is a newer high-performance FDM thermoplastic whose strength and thermal stability are both excellent. With the lowest coefficient of thermal expansion of any FDM material, ULTEM™ 1010 resin is perfect for many industrial tooling applications and other parts that require the unique combination of strength and thermal stability.
Add to that, ULTEM™ 1010 resin’s capacity to withstand steam autoclaving, alongside its food-contact (NSF 51) and bio-compatibility (ISO 10993) certifications, make this material perfect for specialised applications spanning from food-production tools to custom medical equipment.
Just as valuable, ULTEM™ 1010 resin also offers the highest heat resistance, chemical resistance and tensile strength of any FDM thermoplastic. From aerospace applications and automotive applications to composite tooling, it’s a powerful choice.
* 9085, 1010, and ULTEM™ are trademarks of SABIC, its affiliates or subsidiaries
Benefits of PPSF/PPSU Polyphenylsulfone for 3D Printing
Notable as the first high-performance engineered thermoplastic available for FDM (you’ll also hear it called PPSU), this game-changing material was added for under-the-hood and other advanced applications, where lesser plastics could fall victim to heat and chemical attack. As that implies, PPSF offers formidable heat resistance (372°F/189°C heat deflection temperature) and resistance to chemicals. It’s also mechanically superior to other FDM materials (except high-performance ones), not to mention resistant to oils, gasoline, chemicals and acids.
As with ABSi and ABS-M30i, PPSF is sterilisable – but due to its temperature and chemical resistance, other sterilisation methods can also be used, including steam autoclave, plasma, chemical and radiation sterilisation.
Benefits of FDM Nylon 12 for 3D Printing
As the first material in Stratasys’ family of nylon offerings, Nylon 12 is the ideal addition to the existing portfolio of FDM thermoplastics, perfect for new applications that require repetitive snap fits, high fatigue resistance, strong chemical resistance and press (friction) fit inserts. Largely used in aerospace, automotive and consumer goods sectors, Nylon 12 offers unbeatable strength and a simple, clean process that is powder-free. In addition, FDM Nylon 12 parts exhibit 100 to 300% improved elongation at break and superior fatigue resistance over any other AM technology.
Benefits of FDM Nylon 12CF for 3D Printing
Comprising a blend of Nylon 12 resin and chopped carbon fibre (at a loading of 35% by weight) FDM Nylon 12CF is a carbon-filled thermoplastic with useful structural properties. This combination represents one of the strongest thermoplastics in the FDM portfolio, with the best flexural strength of any FDM thermoplastic (resulting in the highest stiffness-to-weight ratio).
It’s often used for strong but lightweight tooling applications and functional prototypes for aerospace, automotive, industrial and recreational manufacturing, amongst many others.
Benefits of FDM Nylon 6 for 3D Printing
Combining strength and durability that outpaces many other thermoplastics, FDM Nylon 6 is perfect for applications that call for tough, customised parts and tooling that continues to deliver in the face of rigorous functional testing. Engineered with the popular Nylon 6 thermoplastic, this material works with the Fortus 900mc 3D printer to create long-lasting parts with a clean finish and superior break resistance. As such, FDM Nylon 6 is a go-to choice for product manufacturers and development engineers in automotive, aerospace, consumer goods and industrial manufacturing.
Benefits of FDM TPU 92A Elastomer for 3D Printing
A thermoplastic polyurethane that harnesses the myriad benefits of elastomers in FDM 3D printing, FDM TPU 92A is available on Stratasys’ F123 Series 3D printers. Many manufacturers use it to quickly prototype elastomer parts, allowing them to skip the costly and time-consuming casting and moulding processes.
FDM TPU 92A not only offers impressive flexibility and stretch, but combines this with abrasion and tear resistance, opening up a whole raft of potential uses that more rigid plastics can’t match. The most common applications involve prototyping of flexible hoses, air ducts and seals, protection covers and vibration dampeners – making this material a winning choice for the transport industry. Perhaps best of all, TPU 92A allows engineers and designers to easily and rapidly produce large, complicated and highly accurate elastomer parts.
Benefits of Antero 800NA for 3D Printing
As the first Stratasys PEKK-based FDM thermoplastic – available on the Fortus 450mc and F900 printers – Antero 800NA offers excellent mechanical properties including high strength and heat resistance, durability and resistance to wear. These properties have seen it emerge as a lighter and more practical alternative to traditional materials like aluminium and steel.
The aerospace industry has been particularly attracted by Antero 800NA’s resistance to jet fuel, oil and hydraulic fluid. Critically, Antero 800NA aircraft parts installed in the same environment as these fluids won’t break down (while giving the aforementioned benefit of a lighter weight). Meanwhile, because spacecraft demand materials with very low emissivity to avoid contamination of optical instruments, Antero 800NA meets this requirement with its very low off-gassing properties.
You should also factor in the cost savings inherent with additive manufacturing. Machining PEKK-based parts create waste, while FDM uses material only where it is needed. For a more expensive material like PEKK, this can mean considerable savings.
Benefits of ST-130 for 3D Printing
ST-130 is a stellar choice for creating complex, hollow structures in a single seam-free piece using sacrificial tooling (it’s the only FDM model material designed and tested specifically for composite tooling applications). Choose this thermoplastic and you’ll enjoy closer control over interior accuracy and surface finish of hollow composite parts (and avoid the time-consuming mould-making processes, interior wrinkles from clamshell tooling or the extra bonding and finishing steps required in multi-piece construction). Additionally, ST-130 support material dissolves easily, resulting in lightweight, tough and seamless composite parts with complex geometries.
UK experts in 3D printing with thermoplastics
Renowned since 2015 as the leading authority on 3D printers in the UK – and all associated AM solutions – the 3D Print Bureau team boasts a combined 35-plus years’ experience. From the optimal thermoplastic materials to the Stratasys 3D printers that bring them to life for your project, we’re always on hand to discuss your needs.
To ask about 3D printing with thermoplastics – or any other aspect of AM – get in touch with the team here