Q What’s the difference between types of 3D printer filaments?

— Levin Eustice, Rome Corners, Wis.

A Ben Cox, engineer at the Morgridge Institute for Research:

3D printing is a process by which we make a piece layer by layer, and the various forms of 3D printing differ in how they make each layer.

An extrusion-based printing, or fused deposition modeling, uses filaments. It takes a raw material and extrudes it through a die to create a long strand. That’s what a filament is.

Filaments are housed in cartridges with big spools of material. The filament is loaded into a machine, gets heated up and then is extruded through a really small die to produce a thin filament.

There are many types of 3D printing filament, but mostly a lot of plastics are used in the industry. ABS, a styrene plastic, and PLA, polylactic acid, are common materials. Nylon can also be extruded. Anything that can be melted and forced through a die can be extruded.

The vast majority of printers in the industry use plastic when they extrude to make filaments. But there are some weird exceptions.

There are printers that extrude food. In that case, the strand of food that comes out of the extruder is the filament. Another weird example of extrusion printing is the 3D printing of homes. Some companies are extruding big strands of concrete to make walls and foundations of homes. So in that case, the material would be a large filament of concrete.

When you’re deciding on the best filament for your project, you need to take into account the actual properties of the material that’s being extruded. For example, ABS is a very strong, durable plastic that could be used for something structural that needs to be strong or hold weight.

While 3D printing is really poised to revolutionize some parts of manufacturing, it may never replace a lot of common types like machining and injection molding, mostly because of the cost. But for complex and custom parts, 3-D printing does make sense.

This type of printing can be applied to things like medical devices or custom equipment. Many people are using it right now for custom brackets and custom machinery parts that can’t be created in traditional ways. That’s really the strength of 3D printing: There’s no structure that you can’t 3-D print.

Blue Sky Science is a collaboration of the Wisconsin State Journal and the Morgridge Institute for Research.

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