3D Printing

Adding more colours and materials into your 3D printing

6th June 2018
Anna Flockett

If you look back, 3D printing has come a long way since 1980 when its first patent was filed by Dr Hideo Kodama of the Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. At a time when many were still marvelling at owning paper printers, Dr Kodama described a photopolymer rapid prototyping system that would involve exposing UV light to a vat of photopolymer material, hardening it into plastic.

Fast forward to 2018 and 3D technology has developed to become much more accessible, with its uses and applications increasing in a range of industries including consumer electronics, defence and architecture. In more popular uses, 3D printing has been used to create, cost-effective medical tools and is being considered for creating tools used by astronauts on space missions. But, with so many applications now possible, how do you know which material is the best one to choose for your project?

Printing in plastic
The material most commonly used in 3D printing is polylactide (PLA). This plastic consists of lactic acid molecules and is also used for sportswear and drinking straws because of its safety qualities. Polylactides are derived from renewable resources such as sugar cane or starch. They soften quickly under heat, which makes them suitable for the 3D printing process. For example, it can be used to create household tools, show objects and prototypes for visualisation such as architectural buildings and cars.

Another popular material filament is the heat resistant material acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymer (ABS). This material can be used to produce much more stable prints because it has a strong resistance to corrosive chemicals and a low melting temperature, making it particularly simple for use in 3D printing. However, ABS also burns faster than PLA, which means that when printing, ABS smells like burned plastic, whereas PLA is much less intrusive here.

When choosing a plastic filament, it largely depends on the 3D printer being used, as some models can only process PLA or ABS. But if the printer can handle both, PLA is usually the preferred choice. Although not quite as stable, it is easier to process, produces less odour and is more environmentally friendly. PLA can be completely degraded in a composting plant, whereas ABS needs to be melted down and processed further. If you’re designing and printing items to withstand temperatures over 50°C, however, ABS must be used, as it remains usable from 85-100°C.

Add a splash of colour
The introduction of the “Colour PLA” (CPLA) filament has completely revolutionised colour 3D printing. Beforehand, coloured prints were only made possible by using a coloured filament. CPLA howeverabsorbs drops of ink and can therefore be printed in multiple colours. The CPLA filament is also more robust than conventional PLA.

New filament materials
Development and innovation in filaments has resulted in novel materials finding their way into 3D printing projects created by electronic enthusiasts and DIYers. 

  • StoneFil is gravimetrically filled with 50% powdered stone and 37% heavier than ‘normal’ PLA. It has natural gradient colour linings and gives a matte stone-like finish.
  • MetalFil is a metal-filled PLA-based filament with approximately 80% of gravimetric copper filling. It is easy to print on both direct drive and Bowden style extruders and can be brushed, sanded, polished, waxed and patina post-processed. 
  • EasyWood is a wood-filled PLA-based filament which is gravimetrically filled with approximately 40% grinded wood particles. It looks, feels and smells like real wood and the 40% gravimetrical filling with cork fibres make the filament warp-free.
  • EasyCork is a lightweight cork-filled PLA-based filament which is gravimetrically filled with approximately 30% cork fibres. It leaves a real cork feel, look and smell and the 30% gravimetrical filling with cork fibres make the filament warp-free.

Thanks to their PLA base, these filaments can be processed by most popular 3D printers, allowing more choice of materials to use for 3D printing projects to make tools, spare parts or decorative objects.

With the range of filaments increasing, it is important for 3D printer owners to understand which material would be most suitable for their projects. There is more research and development in 3D printing than ever before and US defence firm Lockheed Martin has recently filed a patent for diamond filaments, showing there is no end in sight yet for 3D printing’s capabilities. With the popularity of 3D printing increasing in recent years and the development of filaments used to create very ‘real’ materials, we could see even more products and materials coming from 3D printing in the future.

Article written by Frank Gerwarth, product manager, reichelt elektronik.

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