PLA vs. ABS 3D Printing

ABS and PLA are both plastic filaments that can be printed via desktop 3D printers. PLA is commonly used by beginners because it is easy to print and can create aesthetically pleasing pieces. ABS is more difficult to work with, but it is worthwhile due to its increased strength and heat resistance compared to PLA. Due to many desktop 3D printers encountering problems when printing ABS, it is highly recommended to have this material processed by industrial 3D printers for best results. 

PLA

Polylactic Acid, or PLA, is a biodegradable plastic made from corn starch and sugarcane. It is a popular desktop 3D printer filament because it is easy to print. Because it is made from organic materials, its fumes are not harmful or odorous when 3D printing it. In fact, the smell is exactly like maple syrup. Parts made from PLA may be recycled or simply thrown away because this material will break down in a landfill, making disposal easier. PLA is most commonly used for aesthetic pieces because it is brittle and may snap under even a small amount of stress. Its glossy finish also makes it desirable for this purpose. 

When printing with PLA, a range of 180-220°C is required to melt the filament and properly extrude it. This is a relatively low printing temperature, and as PLA has a glass transition temperature of only 60°C, it is not fit for high heat applications. However, this low printing temperature is beneficial in that PLA is not likely to shrink, crack, curl, or warp like other materials, including ABS, which makes it easier to print. The lower temperature also allows for sharper corners and angles compared to ABS. When printing a bridge connection between anchors in midair, PLA will perform better than ABS. This is only relevant, however, if support material is not being used, which most desktop printers will not accommodate. 

ABS

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, or ABS, is an oil-based, amorphous thermoplastic. It is the next step up from PLA as it exhibits more tensile strength and a higher impact resistance. Bending and distortion will occur in ABS before breakage. This makes it the better choice of the two for high stress applications. Due to its makeup, its fumes are highly odorous, and the printing area must be ventilated to avoid respiratory irritation, nausea, headaches, and more. While it can be recycled, this material will not decompose in a landfill. 

ABS filament can be printed on both desktop and industrial FDM 3D printers. However, most will find it difficult to print on desktop because ABS is sensitive to temperature variation. It is printed at 210-240°C, with a glass transition temperature of 105°C, and if not kept at a stable temperature, ABS may easily warp or curl. Additionally, if it cools too rapidly, it may crack along layer lines. For these reasons, ABS is best printed on a heated bed with an enclosed chamber. Most desktop 3D printers do not have an enclosed, heated chamber, which easily leads to distorted or failed ABS prints. Industrial 3D printers, however, excel with ABS as it is the most basic industrial 3D printing material. It is considered the ground floor of industrial 3D printing materials, so professionals are well-equipped to ensure ABS prints are completed successfully. 

How to Choose

When determining whether to use PLA or ABS for your project, it is most important to consider your part’s intended use. For simple cosmetic models that won’t undergo any strain, PLA will usually be sufficient. However, if your parts require high strength or heat resistance, ABS would be the likely choice. 

Additional factors to consider may be ease of printing and cost. While ABS is difficult to print on desktop 3D printers, it is the simplest material for industrial 3D printers. To save you time and frustration, it may prove best to use a 3D printing company to have your ABS parts industrially printed. While this route will cost more overall, you’ll end up with better results than you would achieve on a desktop printer alone. Additionally, industrial 3D printing companies offer more materials and 3D printing technologies, which can help your part reach its full potential. For instance, parts that require superb surface finish may be best produced via PolyJet or MultiJet 3D printing, which are technologies easily accessible through 3D printing servicers.  

3D Printing at 3 Space

Here at 3 Space, we offer multiple 3D printing materials, including ABS, which our expert engineers have been working with for years. If you have questions regarding which material may best suit your needs, our team will be happy to assist you and make suggestions based on your part’s design and application. For more information, contact us today.