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ABS or PLA? Which is the better 3D Printing Filament? | A Complete Guide by Wennovate 3D Printing

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The million peso question – Which is the better 3D printing filament PLA or ABS? In this article, we shed light on which filament to use and what factors to consider before buying your first rolls of 3D printing filament.

Without a doubt, everyone who is new to 3D printing will encounter this question, whether you are planning to use your 3D printer for a business, for 3D printing small nick-nacks, or you’re just eager to learn about the different properties of these two commonly used plastics. So without any further delay, let’s dive in and learn about differences and uses of the two.

 

PLA

 

What is PLA filament made of?

Polylactic Acid, or more commonly referred to as PLA in the 3D printing world, is an organic material which is synthesized from cornstarch or sugarcane. Since the materials used to make PLA is sourced from plants, which are biodegradable, PLA is relatively more environmentally friendly than other types of plastics. Over time, your 3D printed parts made out of PLA will soften and decompose upon continuous exposure to sunlight, heat, moisture and humidity, and other environmental factors around it.

How strong is PLA?

Since this type of 3D printing filament is manufactured using organic raw materials, the strength and durability of PLA may suffer a bit. Based on our three years of experience and client feedback, PLA may not do too well if your part is going to be exposed to sunlight, intense heat, and the changing weather outdoors. If you’re printing a pot or decorations for your garden using PLA, you may notice it sagging and deforming over time, so this may not be the best use of PLA.

The layer adhesion (a 3D printing term defined as the ability of each printed layer to stick to each other) is relatively high and because of this, it is less demanding to print and can be very  lenient for newbies.

Is PLA food safe for 3D printed parts?

Fully dried, cured, and hardened 3D printed parts using PLA is generally considered safe to come into contact with food for human consumption. However, it is widely researched that the ridges that form naturally between layers when 3D printing may trap bacteria and cause it to accumulate if not cleaned thoroughly. Furthermore, using PLA for 3D printed parts is not recommended if the materials will come into contact with hot food because of the low softening point of PLA.  All things considered, as long as your print will be cleaned properly after each use and the part will not store or touch any hot food, then you should be fine with 3D printing with PLA.

How do I properly store my PLA filament? 

That’s a very good question reader! A lot of 3d printing enthusiasts share the same concern as you do, so make sure to pay attention here. Based on client testimonials, our filaments (Wennovate premium PLA) can last up to one and a half and even two years even if no special storage method is used. However, print quality may suffer due to some moisture getting trapped inside the filament, but the plastic is still usable for low detail makes and projects which aren’t so picky with the overall finish. If you want your PLA to last a long time and still print well, keep it out of sunlight and heat and place it in a sealable box with packs of silica gel inside. These are the best practices which are universally acknowledged for extending the shelf life of the filament.

Some hobbyists will go to the extent of making a dry box (see dry box tutorial here with complete material list and prices) for the exclusive storage of their different 3D printing filaments. This is also very useful, as filaments such as ABS, Nylon, and PETG are quite sensitive to moisture.

This being said, Wennovate is not an advocate of fear in storing your 3D printing filaments. In fact, if you’re just a hobbyist, placing your filament on your desk will not be a problem for your everyday prints. But if you run a business and you have hundreds of filament spools to use, then constructing a dedicated storage box is highly recommended for your operations to run smoothly.

What does PLA look like when 3D printed?

PLA has reportedly a shinier and smoother texture than other non-specialty filaments like ABS. It has a lower printing temperature of about 190-210 Celsius depending on the accuracy of your 3D printer’s thermistor reading, and PLA does not require an enclosure during the 3D printing process. This being said, it’s very easy to 3D print using PLA, because during your print, the PLA part can be left at room temperature and be exposed to drafts and wind inside your office or room. Furthermore, so far no studies have shown harmful fumes being produced when you are 3D printing with PLA. It often has a sweet or candy-like smell mid-print, and will not be irritating for the people around your workplace.

How do I achieve a smooth finish on my PLA parts?

Unlike ABS, there is currently no known chemical that can treat the surface of PLA parts without destroying or damaging the print’s structure and detail. However, 3D printed PLA parts can be sanded down using 80 grit, 100 grit, 150 grit, 250 grit and finally 400 to 1000 grit sand paper in order to achieve a smooth finish (See here for our complete sanding guide)

Beginners can use this type of filament as a stepping stone on calibrating their printers and getting started in printing small items for interior decoration and the like. I know how exciting it is to get your hands on your brand new 3D printer, so if you can’t wait to learn about other materials, then PLA is highly recommended for you, as a starting point in your 3D printing adventures to come.

Now that you’re off to a good start and learned all you need to know about PLA filament, we’ll take on ABS next.

 

ABS

 

What is ABS filament made of?

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (that’s a loadfull of words!), or ABS in short, is derived from crude oil (Yes you’re printing with dinosaur bones!) mixed with a solvent called Styrene. Like most of the plastics in the market, ABS is not biodegradable and does not decompose easily. It may take thousands of years, if not millions, for ABS to be broken down to its raw form again. This being said, ABS is much more weather resistant than PLA and can withstand higher temperatures and stress.

Although ABS filaments can brag about their stronger durability, unused ABS 3D printing filaments are still vulnerable to moisture and needs to be stored properly. To build or buy your own dry box and the parts needed, check out this link below!

How strong are my ABS filaments?

ABS undoubtedly beats PLA by a small margin when it comes to strength. However, this also depends on the size and thickness of the print, because ABS has a lower layer adhesion property than PLA. In other words, ABS filaments have a harder time sticking to itself and can sometimes cause weak points in between layers. To support this statement, Wennovate clients had to fine tune their printers before their ABS would perform better than PLA prints.

However, when printed properly and using the right settings, ABS can take more flexing force than PLA and as said before, can be left outdoors without suffering or melting. So if you’re printing planters or other parts that will be exposed to the environment, then ABS may be the choice for you.

Since it is harder for ABS to stick to itself, it’s also more demanding with the temperature conditions during the 3D printing process. ABS needs a higher temperature at about 220 to 240 degrees Celsius for proper extrusion and a heat bed of 100 to 110 degrees Celsius in order to print well. Aside from this, ABS is very sensitive to drafts or breezes from fans or open windows in your work area, so the best practice is to have an enclosure (see here for our DIY enclosure guide, or buy one readily made here) to reduce warping and the deformation of your prints.

What is warping? Why does my ABS warp?

Warping is when your plastic cools down too quickly and the plastic contraction makes your print deformed or some corners of your print may detach and lift up from the heat bed. ABS typically warps if you don’t have an enclosure for your 3D printer and drafts can easily blow through your print causing the plastic to cool down too quickly. If you’re printing with ABS, please do invest in an enclosure!

Is ABS food safe?

Like PLA, ABS is also food safe as long as it is fully cured, thoroughly cleaned, and stored properly to avoid bacteria build up.

How do I store my ABS filaments?

ABS can absorb moisture pretty quickly which can affect your print quality if not dehydrated prior to printing. Clients have reported that Wennovate ABS filaments exposed to the natural work room conditions can start to degrade in three to four months. However you can prevent this by using your filaments quickly or building a dry box (see here for dry box build or buy one here).

What does ABS look like when 3D printed?

The difference between ABS and PLA is that PLA is shinier than ABS. Typically ABS does not give off a sheen and has a matte texture unless the color you bought are metallic colors (see here for metallic PLA and metallic ABS colors). Aside from that, it will look exactly like PLA and the overall finish will not be very drastic from each other.

How do I get a clean and smooth finish on ABS?

ABS is relatively easier to sand and finish than PLA. Because of the weaker interlayer adhesion, when you sand ABS, it’s easier to eat through the material and get rid of the 3D printed layer lines. However, if you don’t have time in your hands for some elbow grease then don’t fret, acetone can be used to smooth ABS quickly. (See our complete acetone smoothing guide here) Please practice caution when you are smoothing your ABS parts as acetone vapor is carcinogenic when inhaled and can cause nausea and other ugly side effects.

Why does ABS smell bad when printing? Is this toxic?

The “S” in ABS does not stand for Superman, but instead, one of its core components, styrene. Styrene is a solvent that evaporates quickly as ABS is softened during the 3D printing process. As it evaporates, a distinct foul odor can cover your work station if your room has poor ventilation. We highly recommend opening all your windows and putting the 3D printer in a different room from your main office if you’re printing with a lot of ABS. Inhaling styrene vapors can damage your liver, nervous system, and has other nasty effects, so you won’t want to do that to yourself.

Now that you know all you need to know about PLA and ABS here is a quick summary of the article above for your reference. Tell your friends about this and check out our shop here.

PLA:

  • Generally easier to print than ABS
  • Prints at 190 to 210 degrees Celsius
  • Gives off a sweet, but harmless, smell
  • Is a bit shinier than ABS when printed
  • Is less tough than ABS
  • Can be smoothed using sand paper
  • Cannot be smoothed using acetone
  • Is not prone to warping
  • Does not need enclosure during printing
  • Can absorb moisture, so it is recommended to be stored in a dry box
  • Is food safe

ABS:

  • Less forgiving to print than PLA
  • Prints at 220 to 240 degrees Celsius
  • Gives off foul and toxic fumes
  • Has a matte finish (except for metallic ABS colors)
  • Can be subject to more flexion forces
  • Has lower layer adhesion
  • Can be smoothed using sand paper
  • Can be smoothed using acetone
  • Is prone to warping
  • Needs an enclosure during printing
  • Can absorb moisture, so it is recommended to be stored in a dry box
  • Is food safe

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