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Guide to 3D Printing Materials: Types, Applications, and Properties

3D printing empowers you to prototype and manufacture parts for a wide range of applications quickly and cost-effectively. But choosing the right 3D printing process is just one side of the coin. Ultimately, it'll be largely up to the materials to enable you to create parts with the desired mechanical properties, functional characteristics, or looks.

This comprehensive guide to 3D printing materials showcases the most popular plastic and metal 3D printing materials available, compares their properties, applications, and describes a framework that you can use to choose the right one for your project.


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Plastic 3D Printing Materials and Processes

There are dozens of plastic materials available for 3D printing, each with its unique qualities that make it best suited to specific use cases. To simplify the process of finding the material best suited for a given part or product, let’s first look at the main types of plastics and the different 3D printing processes.

Types of Plastic Materials

There are the two main types of plastics:

  • Thermoplastics are the most commonly used type of plastic. The main feature that sets them apart from thermosets is their ability to go through numerous melt and solidification cycles. Thermoplastics can be heated and formed into the desired shape. The process is reversible, as no chemical bonding takes place, which makes recycling or melting and reusing thermoplastics feasible. A common analogy for thermoplastics is butter, which can be melted, re-solidify, and melted again. With each melting cycle, the properties change slightly.

  • Thermosetting plastics (also referred to as thermosets) remain in a permanent solid state after curing. Polymers in thermosetting materials cross-link during a curing process that is induced by heat, light, or suitable radiation. Thermosetting plastics decompose when heated rather than melting, and will not reform upon cooling. Recycling thermosets or returning the material back into its base ingredients is not possible. A thermosetting material is like cake batter, once baked into a cake, it cannot be melted back into batter again.

Plastic 3D Printing Processes

The three most established plastic 3D printing processes today are the following:

  • Fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers melt and extrude thermoplastic filaments, which a printer nozzle deposits layer by layer in the build area.

  • Stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers use a laser to cure thermosetting liquid resins into hardened plastic in a process called photopolymerization.

  • Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printers use a high-powered laser to fuse small particles of thermoplastic powder.

FDM vs SLA vs SLS video guide
Video Guide

How to Choose a 3D Printing Technology

Having trouble finding the best plastic 3D printer for your needs? In this video guide, we compare FDM, SLA, and SLS technologies across popular buying considerations.

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FDM 3D Printing

Fused deposition modeling (FDM), also known as fused filament fabrication (FFF), is the most widely used form of 3D printing at the consumer level, fueled by the emergence of hobbyist 3D printers. 

This technique is well-suited for basic proof-of-concept models, as well as quick and low-cost prototyping of simple parts, such as parts that might typically be machined.

Consumer level FDM has the lowest resolution and accuracy when compared to other plastic 3D printing processes and is not the best option for printing complex designs or parts with intricate features. Higher-quality finishes may be obtained through chemical and mechanical polishing processes. Industrial FDM 3D printers use soluble supports to mitigate some of these issues and offer a wider range of engineering thermoplastics or even composites, but they also come at a steep price.

As the melted filament forms each layer, sometimes voids can remain between layers when they don’t adhere fully. This results in anisotropic parts, which is important to consider when you are designing parts meant to bear load or resist pulling.

FDM 3D printing materials are available in a variety of color options. Various experimental plastic filament blends also exist to create parts with wood- or metal-like surfaces.

Popular FDM 3D Printing Materials

The most common FDM 3D printing materials are ABS, PLA, and their various blends. More advanced FDM printers can also print with other specialized materials that offer properties like higher heat resistance, impact resistance, chemical resistance, and rigidity.

ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)Tough and durable
Heat and impact resistant
Requires a heated bed to print
Requires ventilation
Functional prototypes
PLA (polylactic acid)The easiest FDM materials to print
Rigid, strong, but brittle
Less resistant to heat and chemicals
Concept models
Looks-like prototypes
PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol)Compatible with lower printing temperatures for faster production
Humidity and chemical resistant
High transparency
Can be food safe
Waterproof applications
Snap-fit components
NylonStrong, durable, and lightweight
Tough and partially flexible
Heat and impact resistant
Very complex to print on FDM
Functional prototypes
Wear resistant parts
TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane)Flexible and stretchable
Impact resistant
Excellent vibration dampening
Flexible prototypes
PVA (polyvinyl alcohol)Soluble support material
Dissolves in water
Support material
HIPS (high impact polystyrene)Soluble support material most commonly used with ABS
Dissolves in chemical limonene
Support material
Composites (carbon fiber, kevlar, fiberglass)Rigid, strong, or extremely tough
Compatibility limited to some expensive industrial FDM 3D printers
Functional prototypes
Jigs, fixtures, and tooling

SLA 3D Printing

Stereolithography was the world’s first 3D printing technology, invented in the 1980s, and is still one of the most popular technologies for professionals. 

SLA parts have the highest resolution and accuracy, the clearest details, and the smoothest surface finish of all plastic 3D printing technologies. Resin 3D printing is a great option for highly detailed prototypes requiring tight tolerances and smooth surfaces, as well as functional parts, such as molds, patterns, and end use parts. SLA 3D printed parts can also be post-processed after printing by polishing, painting, coating, and more, resulting in client-ready parts with high-quality finishes.

Parts printed using SLA 3D printing are isotropic — their strength is consistent regardless of orientation because chemical bonds happen between each layer. This results in parts with predictable mechanical performance critical for applications like jigs and fixtures, end-use parts, and functional prototyping.

SLA offers the widest range of material options for plastic 3D printing.

Stereolithography - Form 4
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Guide to Stereolithography (SLA) 3D Printing

Looking for a 3D printer to realize your 3D models in high resolution? Download our white paper to learn how SLA printing works and why it's the most popular 3D printing process for creating models with incredible details.

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Popular SLA 3D Printing Materials

SLA 3D printing is highly versatile, offering resin formulations with a wide range of optical, mechanical, and thermal properties to match those of standard, engineering, and industrial thermoplastics. Resin 3D printing also offers the broadest spectrum of biocompatible materials.

The specific material availability is highly dependent on the manufacturer and printer. Formlabs offers the most comprehensive resin library with 40+ SLA 3D printing materials.

Formlabs MaterialsFeaturesApplications
Standard ResinsHigh resolution
Smooth, matte surface finish
Concept models
Looks-like prototypes
Clear ResinThe only truly clear material for plastic 3D printing
Polishes to near optical transparency
Parts requiring optical transparency
Draft ResinOne of the fastest materials for 3D printing
4x faster than standard resins, up to 10x faster than FDM
Initial Prototypes
Rapid Iterations
Tough and Durable ResinsStrong, robust, functional, and dynamic materials
Can handle compression, stretching, bending, and impacts without breaking
Various materials with properties similar to ABS or PE
Housings and enclosures
Jigs and fixtures
Wear-and-tear prototypes
Rigid ResinsHighly filled, strong and stiff materials that resist bending
Thermally and chemically resistant
Dimensionally stable under load
Jigs, fixtures, and tooling
Turbines and fan blades
Fluid and airflow components
Electrical casings and automotive housings
Polyurethane ResinsExcellent long-term durability
UV, temperature, and humidity stable
Flame retardancy, sterilizability, and chemical and abrasion resistance
High performance automotive, aerospace, and machinery components
Robust and rugged end-use parts
Tough, longer-lasting functional prototypes
High Temp ResinHigh temperature resistance
High precision
Hot air, gas, and fluid flow
Heat resistant mounts, housings, and fixtures
Molds and inserts
Flexible and Elastic ResinsFlexibility of rubber, TPU, or silicone
Can withstand bending, flexing, and compression
Holds up to repeated cycles without tearing
Consumer goods prototyping
Compliant features for robotics
Medical devices and anatomical models
Special effects props and models
Silicone 40A ResinThe first accessible 100% silicone 3D printing material
Superior material properties of cast silicone
Functional prototypes, validation units, and small batches of silicone parts
Customized medical devices
Flexible fixtures, masking tools, and soft molds for casting urethane or resin
Medical and dental resinsA wide range of biocompatible resins for producing medical and dental appliancesDental and medical appliances, including surgical guides, dentures, and prosthetics
Jewelry resinsMaterials for investment casting and vulcanized rubber molding
Easy to cast, with intricate details and strong shape retention
Try-on pieces
Masters for reusable molds
Custom jewelry
ESD ResinESD-safe material to improve electronics manufacturing workflowsTooling & fixturing for electronics manufacturing
Anti-static prototypes and end-use components
Custom trays for component handling and storage
Flame Retardant (FR) ResinFlame retardant, heat-resistant, stiff, and creep-resistant material for indoor and industrial environments with high temperatures or ignition sourcesInterior parts in airplanes, automobiles, and railways
Custom jigs, fixtures, and replacement parts for industrial environments
Protective and internal consumer or medical electronics components
Alumina 4N Resin99.99% pure alumina technical ceramic
Exceptional thermal, mechanical, and conductive properties
Heat and electrical insulators
Heavy-duty tools
Chemically resistant and wear-resistant components
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Sample part

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SLS 3D Printing

Selective laser sintering (SLS) 3D printing is trusted by engineers and manufacturers across different industries for its ability to produce strong, functional parts. Low cost per part, high productivity, and established materials make the technology ideal for a range of applications from rapid prototyping to manufacturing aids, and low volume, bridge, or custom manufacturing.

As the unfused powder supports the part during printing, there’s no need for dedicated support structures. This makes SLS ideal for complex geometries, including interior features, undercuts, thin walls, and negative features. 

Just like SLA, SLS 3D prints are also generally isotropic. SLS parts have a slightly rough surface finish due to the powder particles, but almost no visible layer lines, and SLS 3D prints can be post-processed easily to further improve the mechancal performance and appearance.

SLS 3D printing materials are ideal for a range of functional applications, from engineering consumer products to manufacturing and healthcare.

sls example 3d printed part
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Introduction to Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 3D Printing

Looking for a 3D printer to create strong, functional parts? Download our white paper to learn how SLS printing works and why it's a popular 3D printing process for functional prototyping and end-use production.

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Popular SLS 3D Printing Materials

The material selection for SLS is limited compared to FDM and SLA, but the available materials have excellent mechanical characteristics, with strength resembling injection-molded parts. The most common material for selective laser sintering is nylon, a popular engineering thermoplastic with excellent mechanical properties. Nylon is lightweight, strong, and flexible, as well as stable against impact, chemicals, heat, UV light, water, and dirt. Other popular SLS 3D printing materials include polypropylene (PP) and the flexible TPU.

Nylon 12 Strong, stiff, sturdy, and durable
Impact-resistant and can endure repeated wear and tear
Resistant to UV, light, heat, moisture, solvents, temperature, and water
Functional prototyping
End-use parts
Medical devices
Nylon 11 Similar properties to Nylon 12, but with a higher elasticity, elongation at break, and impact resistance, but lower stiffnessFunctional prototyping
End-use parts
Medical devices
Nylon compositesNylon materials reinforced with glass, aluminum, or carbon fiber for added strength and rigidityFunctional prototyping
Structural end-use parts
PolypropyleneDuctile and durable
Chemically resistant
Functional prototyping
End-use parts
Medical devices
TPUFlexible, elastic, and rubbery
Resilient to deformation
High UV stability
Great shock absorption
Functional prototyping
Flexible, rubber-like end-use parts
Medical devices
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Compare Plastic 3D Printing Materials and Processes

Different 3D printing materials and plastic 3D printing processes have their own strengths and weaknesses that define their suitability for different applications. The following table provides a high level summary of some key characteristics and considerations.

ProsLow-cost consumer machines and materials availableGreat value
High accuracy
Smooth surface finish
Range of functional materials
Strong functional parts
Design freedom
No need for support structures
ConsLow accuracy
Low details
Limited design compatibility
High cost industrial machines if accuracy and high performance materials are needed
Sensitive to long exposure to UV lightMore expensive hardware
Limited material options
ApplicationsLow-cost rapid prototyping
Basic proof-of-concept models
Select end-use parts with high-end industrial machines and materials
Functional prototyping
Patterns, molds, and tooling
Dental applications
Jewelry prototyping and casting
Models and props
Functional prototyping
Short-run, bridge, or custom manufacturing
MaterialsStandard thermoplastics, such as ABS, PLA, and their various blends on consumer level machines. High performance composites on high cost industrial machinesVarieties of resin (thermosetting plastics). Standard, engineering (ABS-like, PP-like, flexible, heat-resistant), castable, dental, and medical (biocompatible). Pure silicone and ceramic.Engineering thermoplastics. Nylon 11, nylon 12, glass or carbon-filled nylon composites, polypropylene, TPU (elastomer).

Metal 3D Printing

Beyond plastics, there are multiple 3D printing processes available for metal 3D printing. 

  • Metal FDM

Metal FDM printers work similarly to traditional FDM printers, but use extrude metal rods held together by polymer binders. The finished “green” parts are then sintered in a furnace to remove the binder. 

  • Selective Laser Melting (SLM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) 

SLM and DMLS metal 3D printers work similarly to SLS printers, but instead of fusing polymer powders, they fuse metal powder particles together layer by layer using a laser. SLM and DMLS 3D printers can create strong, accurate, and complex metal products, making this process ideal for aerospace, automotive, and medical applications.

Popular Metal 3D Printing Materials

  • Titanium is lightweight and has excellent mechanical characteristics. It is strong, hard and highly resistant to heat, oxidation, and acid.

  • Stainless steel has high strength, high ductility, and is resistant to corrosion.

  • Aluminum is a lightweight, durable, strong, and has good thermal properties.

  • Tool steel is a hard, scratch-resistant material that you can use to print end-use tools and other high-strength parts..

  • Nickel alloys have high tensile, creep and rupture strength and are heat and corrosion resistant.

Alternatives to Metal 3D Printing

Compared to plastic 3D printers, metal 3D printing is substantially more costly and complex, limiting its accessibility to most businesses.

Alternatively, SLA 3D printing is well-suited for casting workflows that produce metal parts at a lower cost, with greater design freedom, and in less time than traditional methods. 

Another alternative is electroplating SLA parts, which involves coating a plastic material in a layer of metal via electrolysis. This combines some of the best qualities of metal—strength, electrical conductivity, and resistance to corrosion and abrasion—with the specific properties of the primary (usually plastic) material.

Plastic 3D printing is well-suited to create patterns that can be cast to produce metal parts.

Framework for Choosing the Right Plastic 3D Printing Material

With all these materials and 3D printing options available, how can you make the right selection?

Here’s our three-step framework to choose the right 3D printing material and plastic 3D printer for your application.

Step 1: Define Performance Requirements

Plastics used for 3D printing have different chemical, optical, mechanical, and thermal characteristics that determine how the 3D printed parts will perform. As the intended use approaches real-world usage, performance requirements increase accordingly.

Low performanceFor form and fit prototyping, conceptual modeling, and research and development, printed parts only need to meet low technical performance requirements.

Example: A form prototype of a soup ladle for ergonomic testing. No functional performance requirements needed besides surface finish.
SLA: Standard Resins, Clear Resin (transparent parts), Draft Resin (fast printing)
Moderate performance For validation or pre-production uses, printed parts must behave as closely to final production parts as possible for functional testing but do not have strict lifetime requirements.

Example: A housing for electronic components to protect against sudden impact. Performance requirements include ability to absorb impact, housing needs to snap together and hold its shape.
SLA: Engineering Resins
SLS: Nylon 11, nylon 12, polypropylene, TPU
High performanceFor end-use parts, final 3D printed production parts must stand up to significant wear for a specific time period, whether that’s one day, one week, or several years.

Example: Shoe outsoles. Performance requirements include strict lifetime testing with cyclic loading and unloading, color fastness over periods of years, amongst others like tear resistance.
FDM: Composites
SLA: Engineering, Medical, Dental, or Jewelry Resins
SLS: Nylon 12, nylon 11, nylon composites, polypropylene, TPU

Step 2: Translate Performance Requirements to Material Requirements

Once you’ve identified the performance requirements for your product, the next step is translating them into material requirements—the properties of a material that will satisfy those performance needs. You’ll typically find these metrics on a material’s data sheet.

Tensile strengthResistance of a material to breaking under tension. High tensile strength is important for structural, load bearing, mechanical, or statical parts.FDM: PLA
SLA: Clear Resin, Rigid Resins, Alumina 4N Resin
SLS: Nylon 12, nylon composites
Flexural modulusResistance of a material to bending under load. Good indicator for either the stiffness (high modulus) or the flexibility (low modulus) of a material.FDM: PLA (high), ABS (medium)
SLA: Rigid Resins (high), Tough and Durable Resins (medium), Flexible and Elastic Resins (low)
SLS: Nylon composites (high), nylon 12 (medium)
ElongationResistance of a material to breaking when stretched. Helps you compare flexible materials based on how much they can stretch. Also indicates if a material will deform first, or break suddenly.FDM: ABS (medium), TPU (high)
SLA: Tough and Durable Resins (medium), Polyurethane Resins (medium), Flexible and Elastic Resins (high), Silicone 40A Resin (high)
SLS: Nylon 12 (medium), nylon 11 (medium), polypropylene (medium), TPU (high)
Impact strengthAbility of a material to absorb shock and impact energy without breaking. Indicates toughness and durability, helps you figure out how easily a material will break when dropped on the ground or crashed into another object.FDM: ABS, Nylon
SLA: Tough 2000 Resin, Tough 1500 Resin, Grey Pro Resin, Durable Resin, Polyurethane Resins
SLS: Nylon 12, nylon 11, polypropylene, nylon composites
Heat deflection temperatureTemperature at which a sample deforms under a specified load. Indicates if a material is suitable for high temperature applications.SLA: High Temp Resin, Rigid Resins, Alumina 4N Resin
SLS: Nylon 12, Nylon 11, nylon composites
Hardness (durometer)Resistance of a material to surface deformation. Helps you identify the right “softness” for soft plastics, like rubber and elastomers for certain applications.FDM: TPU
SLA: Flexible Resin, Elastic Resin, Silicone 40A Resin
Tear strengthResistance of a material to growth of cuts under tension. Important to assess the durability and the resistance to tearing of soft plastics and flexible materials, such as rubber.FDM: TPU
SLA: Flexible Resin, Elastic Resin, Silicone 40A Resin
CreepCreep is the tendency of a material to deform permanently under the influence of constant stress: tensile, compressive, shear, or flexural. Low creep indicates longevity for hard plastics and is crucial for structural parts.FDM: ABS
SLA: Polyurethane Resins, Rigid Resins, Alumina 4N Resin
SLS: Nylon 12, nylon 11, nylon composites, polypropylene
Compression setPermanent deformation after material has been compressed. Important for soft plastics and elastic applications, tells you if a material will return to its original shape after the load is removed.FDM: TPU
SLA: Flexible Resin, Elastic Resin, Silicone 40A Resin

For even more details on material properties, read our guide to about the most common mechanical and thermal properties.

Step 3: Make a Selection

Once you translate performance requirements to material requirements, you’ll most likely end up with a single material or a smaller group of materials that could be suitable for your application. 

If there are multiple materials that fulfil your basic requirements, you can then look at a wider range of desired characteristics and consider the pros, cons, and trade-offs of the given materials and processes to make the final choice.

Find the Best 3D Printing Material for Your Project

Try our interactive material wizard to find materials based on your application and the properties you care the most about from Formlabs' growing library of materials. Do you have specific questions about 3D printing materials? Contact our 3D printing experts.

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