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Filament - All you need to know.

Posted by Thomas Brooks on

What is the history of 3D printer filament?

The first 3D printing process, called stereolithography, was developed in the 1980s. This process used a laser to harden liquid resin and thereby print a part. The development of fused deposition modeling (FDM) soon followed, and this is the marked the beginning of 3D printer filament. In the mid 2000s, the RepRap project began. This project is most credited for bringing 3D printing mainstream by producing numerous open source 3D printer designs and thereby making 3d printers much more affordable. Below, you can see an opensource 3D printer that emerged from the RepRap project and probably looks quite familiar. 

Initially, only a few materials were available for use with FDM printers, including ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and PLA (polylactic acid) that are still very popular filament materials today. Since that time, dozens of different types of filaments have been developed for use with 3D printers, including PETG, TPU, nylon, various co-polymers, and even metal and wood composites. These materials offer a wide range of properties and characteristics, including strength, toughness, flexibility, texture, and even smell. Demand for 3D printing grows in numerous industries and this drives continued innovation in the 3D printing filament market.

Why are there different filament diameters in 3D printing and which is best?

The earliest FDM 3d printers used 3mm filament (actually 2.85mm filament, but 3mm stuck) simply because it was readily available in a product called plastic welding rod. 3mm diameter filament has some advantages over 1.75mm, but ultimately 1.75mm filament became more popular than 3mm filament for a few reasons:

Greater precision: One advantage of 1.75mm filament is its smaller diameter. This allows for easier use with smaller diameter nozzles which give greater precision and detail. Also, as the smaller filament diameter allows for finer control of the extrusion process, because less plastic is moved per step of the filament extruder stepper. Using the smaller nozzles made possible by lower diameter filament allows for thinner layers which will result in smoother and more detailed prints overall.

    Easier Extrusion: 1.75mm filament is more easily melted, because the heat does not have to conduct as far to get to the center of the filament. Additionally, it is more flexible and easier to feed to extruder and hot end. Ultimately, these things make the 1.75mm filament require less extrusion force to push the filament through the printer's nozzle, resulting in smoother prints and fewer clogs.

    Greater Availability: As the popularity of 3D printing grew, more and more companies began producing 3d printers that use 1.75mm filament. The switch in popularity occurred in the early 2010s as desktop 3D printers became more popular. This made it more widely available and easier to source than 3mm filament.

      More Options: Because of its popularity, there are many more options for 1.75mm filament than there are for 3mm filament. This includes a wider range of materials, colors, and finishes, giving users more choices to find the perfect filament for their application.

        While 3mm filament is still used in some higher end 3D printers, 1.75mm filament is used in most consumer-grade 3D printers due to these advantages.

        What FDM filament materials are available today?

        The following list is not comprehensive, but includes eight of the most popular FDM 3D printer filament materials that are printable by consumer grade 3D printers along with their advantages, disadvantages, and ease of use:

        PLA (Polylactic Acid)
        Advantages: PLA has low warping, has a high tensile strength, and is biodegradable and made from renewable resources. Because PLA is so easy to print, it is the most popular 3D printing filament material.

        Disadvantages: PLA is not as tough and has a lower temperature resistance than as some other materials.

        ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)
        Advantages: ABS is strong, tough, and has good temperature resistance, making it suitable for functional parts and prototypes.

        Disadvantages: It can be difficult to print due to warping and requires a heated bed. It also emits unpleasant fumes during printing that are unhealthy to breath in excess.

          PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)
          Advantages: PETG is strong and durable, has good temperature resistance, and is easy to print.

          Disadvantages: It can be prone to stringing and requires a heated bed.
            TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane)
            Advantages: TPU is flexible and elastic, making it ideal for creating soft and rubber-like parts.

            Disadvantages: It can be difficult to print (especially with a Bowden extruder setup) due to its flexibility and may require special settings or modifications to the printer.
              Advantages: Nylon is strong, durable, and has good temperature resistance, making it ideal for creating functional parts and prototypes.

              Disadvantages: Nylon filament must be dried before printing. It can also be difficult to print due to warping, and requires a heated bed and enclosure.
                Polycarbonate (PC)
                Advantages: PC is strong and has high temperature resistance, making it ideal for creating functional parts and prototypes that require toughness and heat resistance.

                Disadvantages: It can be difficult to print due to warping, requires a heated bed and enclosure, and can emit harmful fumes during printing.
                  PVA (Polyvinyl Alcohol)
                  Advantages: PVA is a support material that can be dissolved in water, making it ideal for complex prints with overhangs and internal structures.

                  Disadvantages: It can be difficult to print due to its tendency to absorb moisture from the air and requires a separate extruder or dual extrusion printer to use. New slicer features for support structures have also made it easier to print support structure without PVA.
                    ASA (Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate)
                    Advantages: ASA is similar to ABS, but with improved UV and weather resistance, making it ideal for outdoor applications.

                    Disadvantages: It can be difficult to print due to warping and requires a heated bed and enclosure.

                      Overall, the ease of use of these materials very much depend upon the 3D printer and the size of the part you're printing. Some materials may require a heated bed, enclosure, or special settings to print effectively, while others are more forgiving. It's important to do research and run experiments on the specific materials and settings for your printer to achieve the best results.

                      What new FDM filament materials are likely to emerge in the future?

                      There are many potential directions that future 3D printer filaments could take, and several emerging trends that will shape the future of this technology. Here are a few possibilities:

                      Material Properties: As 3D printing processes integrate into mass manufacturing, the demand for 3D printer filaments that can produce functional parts with specific properties, such as strength, flexibility, or conductivity will increase. Some current examples of functional materials include carbon fiber-reinforced filaments, conductive filaments, and even filaments that can change color in response to temperature or light.

                      Ease of Use: Probably the biggest issue 3D printing faces is that is a complex, error prone, and difficult process. Therefore, future 3D printer filament materials will need to address this issue by making it easier to consistently extrude and adhere the filament.

                      Sustainability: With growing concerns about plastic waste and the environmental impact of 3D printing, there may be a greater focus on developing more sustainable 3D printer filaments. This could include the use of biodegradable or compostable materials, as well as the development of filaments made from recycled plastic.

                      Customizability: One of the biggest advantages of 3D printing is its ability to produce highly customized parts and products. As 3D printing technology advances, we may see the development of filaments that allow for even greater customization, such as filaments that can change color or texture during the printing process, or filaments that can be programmed to produce parts with specific properties or functions.

                        Overall, the future of 3D printer filaments is likely to be shaped by a combination of emerging technologies, market demands, and environmental considerations. The possibilities for innovation are virtually endless, and it will be exciting to see how 3D printing filaments continue to evolve and improve in the future.



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