What Materials Can Be 3D Printed? Expand Your Horizons!

A 3D printer with various spools of filament on either side.

When you picture 3D printing, you probably think of items being made with plastic. Plastic is the most commonly used 3D printing material, but it is certainly not the only one.

So, whether you are merely curious about the possibilities of 3D printing, you want to experiment with different materials, or you want to start or expand a 3D printing business, it is helpful to know exactly what materials can be 3D printed. 

What materials can be 3D printed? Materials that are commonly 3D printed include various plastics (ABS, PLA, TPU, PETG, etc.) and resin. Less common materials that can be 3D printed include wood filaments, metal filaments, ceramics, metal alloys, and sandstone filaments.

The different types of 3D printing materials have different printing requirements and produce end products with a wide variety of finishes and properties. 

Plastics Can Be Used In 3D Printing

As mentioned, plastic is the most commonly used 3D printing material.

However, there are many different types of 3D printing plastics available, including those discussed below.  

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a thermoplastic filament material. It is commonly used in 3D printing.

To give you an indication of what this plastic is like, it may be helpful to know that Lego blocks are made from ABS.  

Advantages of ABS
  • Strong
  • Hard
  • Long lasting
  • Water resistant
  • Heat resistant
  • Low cost
  • Smooth finish
Printing Features of ABS
  • High melting point
  • Easy to shape as it melts
  • Sets rapidly
  • Requires ventilation
Printing Method of ABS
  • Primarily Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) or Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF)
Disadvantages of ABS
  • Vulnerable to UV radiation
  • Requires large amounts of thermal energy to become pliable
  • Requires a heated printing bed
  • Produces foul odor and fumes during print
ABS End Products
  • Toys
  • Models
  • Gears and interlocking parts
  • Automotive parts (like vehicle bumpers)
  • PPE (hard hats, helmets, etc.)

Polylactic Acid Plastic

Polylactic Acid (PLA) plastic is actually a vegetable-based 3D printing plastic made from cornstarch.

Most often, people are choosing between PLA and ABS when choosing a plastic with which to 3D print.

Advantages of PLA
  • The printing bed does not need to be heated
  • No foul odor or toxic vapors produced during printing
  • Biodegradable (green) but lasts long under normal conditions
  • Smooth finish
  • Low cost
  • Relatively strong
Printing Features of PLA
  • Prints quickly
  • Easier to print with than ABS
  • Requires cooling fans
Printing Method of PLA
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of PLA
  • Less heat-resistant than ABS
  • Brittle
PLA End Products
  • Calibration items
  • Concept items
  • Practice pieces

Thermoplastic Polyurethane

Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) is a form of Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE) filament that has elastic or rubber-like properties. 

Advantages of TPU
  • Flexible
  • Soft
  • Absorbs vibrations
  • Long-lasting
  • High impact-resistance
Printing Features of TPU
  • Cooling fan required
  • High melting point
Printing Method of TPU
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of TPU
  • Difficult to print with
TPU End Products
  • Phone cases
  • Handle grips

Glycol Modified Polyethylene Terephthalate

Glycol Modified Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETG) is often used for items to store or otherwise come into contact with food. 

Advantages of PETG
  • Semiflexible
  • Semitransparent
  • Water resistant
  • Food safe
  • Smooth surface finish
Printing Features of PETG
  • Can be printed at low temperatures
  • Fast print speeds
  • Easy to print
Printing Method of PETG
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of PETG
  • Susceptible to wear
PETG End Products
  • Water bottles
  • Food storage containers
  • Vacuum bags

Resins Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Resins are used in Stereolithography (SLA) printing and Digital Light Processing (DLP).

Resin is a liquid material that is sensitive to UV radiation.

When UV radiation strikes resin, it hardens and fuses to the preceding layers. In this way, an item can be printed. 

Advantages of Resin
  • Smooth, high-quality finish
  • Faster than FDM
  • Very strong
Printing Features of Resin
  • High resolution
  • Requires ventilation
Printing Method of Resin
  • Primarily SLA and DLP
Disadvantages of Resin
  • More costly than FDM (on average)
  • Composite parts (made from more than one material) are not possible
  • Messy post-processing
  • Releases foul odor during print
Resin End Products
  • Models
  • Art
  • Functional parts
  • Prototypes
Types of resin
  • Standard resin
  • Rapid resin (cures quickly, high precision)
  • Gray resin (very smooth)
  • Tough resin (high impact resistance)
  • Mammoth resin (for large pieces)
  • Flexible resin likes Elastomeric Polyurethane (EPU) (comparable to TPU filament plastic)
  • Transparent resin (clear and water-resistant)

Less Common Materials Used In 3D Printing

Wood Filaments Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Wood filament is a composite material used in FDM or FFF.

The wood filaments are primarily made up of PLA, but they contain fibers of wood or wood dusts, which give the material the look and feel of real wood. 

Advantages of Wood Filament
  • Exotic wood look
  • Depth of color can be controlled with heat
  • It can be cut, sanded, and painted
Printing Features of Wood Filament
  • Requires cooling fan
  • Easy post-processing
Printing Method of Wood Filament
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of Wood Filament
  • Strings easily
  • May require a larger nozzle size to prevent clogging
  • Not strong like real wood or noncomposite PLA
Wood Filament End Products
  • Novelty items
  • Bowls
  • Toys
  • Props

Metal Filaments Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Metal Filaments are also composite materials made mostly out of PLA.

To give these filaments the look of metal, small amounts of metal powders are added to the PLA. 

Advantages of Metal Filament
  • Exotic metal look
  • Adds weight to printed item
  • Different options available (bronze, copper, steel, and iron)
  • Heat resistant
Printing Features of Metal Filament
  • Cooling fan required
  • Can use lower heat 
  • Requires post-processing to produce the final metal look
Printing Method of Metal Filament
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of Metal Filament
  • It needs to be extruded with a strong nozzle to withstand wear
  • Brittle
  • Costly
Metal Filament End Products
  • Novelty items
  • Toys
  • Props
  • Jewelry
  • Art

Ceramics Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Ceramic materials for 3D printing can come in the form of powdered clays or resins. 

Advantages of Ceramic
  • Exotic ceramic look
  • Heat resistant
  • Durable
Printing Features of Ceramic
  • Difficult
Printing Method of Ceramic
  • FDM (for clays)
  • SLA
  • DLP
  • Binder Jetting
Disadvantages of Ceramic
  • Requires a specialized ceramic printer
  • Expensive
Ceramic End Products
  • Pottery
  • Kitchenware
  • Art
  • Jewelry

Metal Alloys Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Previously metal filament was discussed, but here I refer to completely metal alloys.

3D printing with metal alloys is becoming increasingly popular, especially in research and industry.

Home 3D printing with metal alloys is not unheard of, but it is less common. 

The two most common types of 3D metal alloys are stainless steel and a titanium alloy called Ti-6Al-4V. 

Advantages of Metal Alloy
  • Durable
  • Biocompatible
  • Resistant to oxidation
  • Strong
Printing Features of Metal Alloy
  • Printed from metal powders
Printing Method of Metal Alloy
  • Binder jetting
  • Directed energy deposition
  • Powder bed fusion
  • Selective laser melting
Disadvantages of Metal Alloy
  • Expensive
Metal Alloy End Products
  • Biomedical implants
  • Prosthetics
  • Automotive parts
  • Aerospace parts and equipment

Sandstone Filament Can Be Used In 3D Printing

Sandstone filaments are composite 3D printing materials made mostly from PLA with small quantities of powdered brick or chalk incorporated into the plastic to give it the look and feel of stone. 

Advantages of Sandstone Filament
  • Rough or smooth qualities of the surface can be controlled through temperature
  • The printing bed does not need to be heated
  • Exotic stone look
  • Unlikely to warp or shrink
Printing Features of Sandstone Filament
  • Requires cooling fan
  • Easy to print
  • It needs to be extruded with a strong nozzle to withstand wear
Printing Method of Sandstone Filament
  • Primarily FDM or FFF
Disadvantages of Sandstone Filament
  • Brittle
  • Expensive
  • Nozzle can clog
Sandstone Filament End Products
  • Niche products for art, architecture, landscaping, etc.

What Materials Cannot Be 3D Printed?

This is an intriguing question to ask because, as you can see from the list above, there are ways and means of taking substances that you could not normally print with, such as stone, and making them into a composite material capable of being printed. 

People are even experimenting with the printing of chocolate and foods.

So, it seems as if you can print with almost any material, whether directly, as in plastics, indirectly, as in wood filament, or even both, as in metal filament and metal alloys. 

Conclusion

At each turn, you realize the endless possibilities of 3D printing. The vast array of materials with which laypeople and professionals can print is staggering.

Each material provides different characteristics that meet the needs of many various products. 

Common materials include ABS, PLA, PETG, TPU, and resins.

Less common materials include wood filaments, metal filaments, ceramics, metal alloys, and sandstone filaments.

Be sure to check out all my 3D Printing articles for more information, printer reviews, and recommendations. Access them all here.

Sources:

https://elblogdelplastico.blogs.upv.es/2015/01/31/pla-vs-abs-plastic-the-pros-and-cons/

https://www.makerbot.com/stories/design/3d-printing-materials/

https://www.sculpteo.com/blog/2019/08/28/materials-used-in-3d-printing/

https://www.simplify3d.com/support/materials-guide/

https://all3dp.com/1/3d-printing-materials-guide-3d-printer-material/

https://www.makerbot.com/3d-printers/materials/method-abs/

https://i.materialise.com/blog/en/3d-printed-resin-overview/

https://3dinsider.com/resin-3d-printing/

https://www.tomsguide.com/us/3d-printing-materials,news-24392.html

https://all3dp.com/2/ceramic-3d-printer-ceramic-3d-printing/

https://formlabs.com/materials/ceramics/

https://www.sculpteo.com/blog/2015/04/15/unusual-3d-printing-materials/

https://www.thermofisher.com/blog/metals/3d-printing-with-metal-alloy-powder-may-make-ultra-strong-metal-parts/

https://www.3dnatives.com/en/alternative-3d-printing-filament230820184/#!

https://3dinsider.com/sandstone-filament/