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3D Printing Materials and applications

In this section you will learn:

As discussed in our article, “Introduction to 3D Printing”, this technology involves building objects layer by layer from digital designs using various techniques. Additive manufacturing employs several materials, each with its unique properties and suitability for different applications. The 3D printing industry offers one or more techniques for most commonly used in industry polymers, photopolymer resins ceramics, or metals.

Polymers

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

PLA (Polylactic Acid)

PET or PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)

PP (Polypropylene)

TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane)

PA (Polyamide also known as Nylon)

Superpolymers (PEEK, PEKK, ULTEM, PEI)

Photopolymer resins

The pyramid graphic of common thermoplastic materials. Image Credit: Mashallah Rezakemi, et al.

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene)

Known for its strength, flexibility, and durability. Commonly used in prototyping and end-use parts to achieve fast 3d printing.

PLA (Polylactic Acid)

Industrially biodegradable and derived from renewable resources like cornstarch or sugar cane. Used for prototypes, hobbyist projects, and consumer products. A great and affordable option for easy 3D printing.

PET or PETG (Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol)

Combines the strength and durability of ABS with the ease of printing of PLA. Used in mechanical parts and food-safe applications.

PP (Polypropylene)

A thermoplastic polymer known for its toughness, flexibility, and chemical resistance. It has a relatively low density, making it lightweight, and it exhibits good fatigue resistance. PP is used for producing functional prototypes, automotive components, flexible hinges, and containers.

TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane)

It is a flexible and elastic thermoplastic elastomer with excellent abrasion resistance, elasticity, and durability. It can be formulated to have varying degrees of hardness or softness. TPU is widely used in applications requiring flexibility and impact resistance, such as in footwear, sports equipment, phone cases, and seals/gaskets. In additive manufacturing, TPU is valued for producing flexible and resilient parts, including prototypes, gaskets, protective covers, and medical devices.

FS1092A-TPU Flexible Shoe Sole. Image credit: Farsoon Technologies

PA (Polyamide also known as Nylon)

Polyamide (PA) materials, including variants such as PA6, PA 6 66, PA 12, PA12, and PA11, are highly used in 3D printing for their exceptional mechanical properties and versatility. These materials exhibit high strength, impact resistance, and flexibility, making them indispensable across numerous industries. From automotive components to consumer goods and aerospace parts, PA materials are utilized for their ability to withstand mechanical stress and offer reliable performance. Moreover, their chemical resistance and low friction properties make them suitable for producing gears, bearings, and structural components. In addition to their standalone capabilities, PA materials are often combined with reinforcing fibers such as carbon fiber or glass fiber to create composite materials, further enhancing their mechanical strength and stiffness. This versatility in application and the potential for composite reinforcement solidify PA materials’ position as a cornerstone in additive manufacturing, empowering designers and engineers to create robust and functional parts for a myriad of applications.

Superpolymers (PEEK, PEKK, ULTEM, PEI)

Superpolymers such as PEEK (Polyetheretherketone), ULTEM (Polyetherimide), and PPSU (Polyphenylsulfone) are transforming additive manufacturing across a wide range of applications. PEEK, for example is well known for its exceptional mechanical properties and biocompatibility, and finds extensive use in medical implants, aerospace components, and industrial machinery. 

ULTEM’s outstanding strength-to-weight ratio, flame resistance, and electrical insulation properties make it indispensable in aerospace, automotive, and electronics applications, including aircraft interiors, automotive components, and electronic housings. PPSU’s remarkable toughness, chemical resistance, and sterilizability through autoclaving makes it suitable for medical devices, food processing equipment, and automotive components. Additionally, innovative materials like PEKK (Polyetherketoneketone) are emerging as alternatives, sharing similar mechanical properties to PEEK but offering enhanced printability, further expanding the possibilities in additive manufacturing.

With their superior performance characteristics, superpolymers like PEEK, ULTEM, PPSU, and PEKK are driving innovation in additive manufacturing, enabling the production of complex, high-performance parts for diverse industries.

PEEK 3D printed implants. Image credit: OSTEOFAB

Photopolymer resins

Photopolymer resins are liquid polymers that solidify under UV light, commonly used in SLA, LCD and DLP 3D printing. They offer high precision and detail, making them ideal for intricate applications like jewelry and dental models. While they provide excellent resolution, their mechanical strength may vary, requiring careful consideration for each use case.

For example, ABS-like resins replicate the properties of ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastics, providing strength, durability, and impact resistance. These resins find applications in prototyping, functional parts, and consumer products where robustness and reliability are key. In this Resin 3D printing world is possible to find Ceramic-Like resins, Polyurethane-like or Rubber-like resins with flexible properties, and specialized resins to withstand special working conditions.

Additionally, wax resins are tailored for investment casting applications, allowing the creation of intricate patterns for metal casting processes. By melting away during the casting process, wax resins facilitate the production of highly detailed and dimensionally accurate metal parts, making them indispensable in jewelry manufacturing, aerospace, and automotive industries.

 

Metals

Stainless Steel

316L stainless steel is widely used for its remarkable corrosion resistance and biocompatibility, making it ideal for additive manufacturing in surgical instruments, and marine components. Its ability to withstand harsh environments and its compatibility with bodily tissues make it indispensable for applications requiring high durability and safety.

Stainless steel’s strength, durability, and resistance to wear and corrosion make it a top choice for demanding applications in aerospace, automotive, and medical industries. Its wide range of grades offers tailored properties, allowing engineers to select the most suitable alloy for specific needs. Despite initial costs, stainless steel’s longevity justifies the investment, as it requires minimal maintenance and withstands harsh environments. Its machinability enables the production of intricate parts, and post-processing treatments further enhance its properties and appearance, making stainless steel a versatile and cost-effective material for additive manufacturing.

 

Engineering Brackets printed in Stainless Steel. Image credit: Farsoon

Titanium

Known for its high strength-to-weight ratio and biocompatibility. It is commonly used in aerospace and medical implants. In today’s landscape, the consumer electronics industry is increasingly turning its attention to Titanium Ti64 3D printing, captivated by its remarkable combination of high resistance, ultra-low weight, and stunning aesthetics. As consumer electronics continue to push the boundaries of innovation and design, the demand for materials that can deliver both performance and visual appeal has never been greater. Titanium Ti64, known for its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio and corrosion resistance, offers greater durability than Stainless Steel while maintaining a feather-light profile, crucial for enhancing the portability and functionality of electronic devices. Furthermore, the unique properties of Titanium Ti64 lend themselves to intricate and sleek designs, contributing to the aesthetic of consumer electronics. From smartphones to wearable devices, the adoption of Titanium Ti64 3D printing promises to revolutionize the consumer electronics industry, paving the way for a new era of lightweight, durable, and visually stunning products that meet the evolving demands of modern consumers.

 

Apple and Honor to use metal 3D printing for production of next gen devices. Image Credit: Voxelmatters.com

Aluminum

Lightweight and corrosion-resistant. Used in aerospace, automotive, and consumer goods. Aluminum alloys, including AlSi10Mg and AlSi7Mg, are increasingly favored in additive manufacturing for their lightweight properties, strength, and thermal conductivity. AlSi10Mg, in particular, is renowned for its versatility and widespread use across industries like aerospace, automotive, and electronics, where weight reduction and structural integrity are paramount. Its specific composition offers good corrosion resistance and facilitates the production of intricate geometries, making it ideal for complex components and lightweight structures. Similarly, AlSi7Mg is valued for its high strength and excellent machinability, making it suitable for a variety of applications, including automotive parts and aerospace components. The affordability and ease of processing of these aluminum alloys further enhance their appeal in additive manufacturing, enabling the production of high-performance parts with reduced lead times and costs.

In Line Tube Shell Heat exchanger Alunimum / FS421M. Image Credit: Farsoon

Ceramics

3D printing in ceramics represents a breakthrough enabling the creation of intricate shapes with exceptional detail, thus unlocking the potential for advanced technical ceramics. With SLA, materials like Zirconia, Zirconia Y8, Alumina, Hydroxyapatite, Tricalcium Phosphate (TCP), Aluminum Nitride, and Silicon Nitride can be precisely fabricated, offering high strength, thermal resistance, and biocompatibility. Additionally, FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D printing extends the capability to dark ceramics such as Silicon Carbide and ferrite, further broadening the spectrum of achievable materials. These advancements in ceramic additive manufacturing pave the way for innovative applications in various industries, including aerospace, healthcare, and electronics, where complex geometries and superior material properties are paramount.

 

Hydroxyapatite (HAP) and Tricalcium Phosphate (TCP) are key materials in the biomedical field, offering unique solutions for absorbable implants that support tissue growth. These biocompatible ceramics mimic natural bone composition, promoting integration with surrounding tissues and encouraging new bone formation. HAP and TCP contribute to the development of innovative implants that aid in bone regeneration, improving patient outcomes in various medical applications.

 

3D printed spinal cage examples. Image credit: 3DCeram Sinto

Composite printing (Continous Fiber and Chopped Fiber)

In conjunction with continuous fiber composite 3D printing methods, the integration of materials like Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers and Glass Fiber Reinforced Polymers has reshaped additive manufacturing by increasing the anisotropy of the parts. While the most common pairing involves these fibers with Polyamide (Nylon), emerging trends highlight the utilization of advanced superpolymers such as ULTEM (PEI) and PEEK, tailored to specific application demands. This dynamic material combination offers enhanced strength, durability, and thermal stability, catering to diverse industries such as aerospace, automotive, and medical.

Whether optimizing for lightweight structures or high-performance components, the versatility of continuous fiber composite 3D printing, alongside a spectrum of polymer options, empowers engineers to innovate across a broad range of applications.

Manufacturers who produce continuous carbon fiber 3D printers usually compare the strength of their prints with 6061 aluminum. They claim that 3D printed carbon fiber has a 50% higher strength-to-weight ratio in flexure, and a 300% higher ratio in tensile moment. Carbon fiber continuous reinforcement has been used to create conformal jigs/fixtures and specialty tooling for some of the largest and most prestigious global businesses. Additionally, it is used for one-off end-use parts that are designed for high-end motorsport applications.

Continuous Carbon Fiber 3D printing

Schunk Carbon Tech Anisoprint

Curious about 3D printing materials and applications? Dive into this innovative world with us! There’s always more to discover. Reach out to us for an insightful conversation about 3D printing materials and their applications in education and industry.

 

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Bibliography:

2. Mashallah Rezakazemi, Mohtada Sadrzadeh, Takeshi Matsuura,

Thermally stable polymers for advanced high-performance gas separation membranes, Progress in Energy and Combustion Science, Volume 66,

2018, Pages 1-41, ISSN 0360-1285, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pecs.2017.11.002.

2. 3D Ceram Sinto: https://3dceram.com