PLA vs. ABS: Which 3D printing filament should you use?

3d printing health hazards header
Sergi Lopez Roig/Shutterstock
Perhaps the most important part of 3D printing is using the right material for your print job. When considering what building material to use, there are numerous factors to consider, including strength, flexibility, accuracy, and special conditions the material may require in order to print properly and accurately. ABS and PLA are the two types of materials 3D printers currently use, but the differences between the two aren’t immediately apparent. This raises the question: which is best suited for your 3D printing needs?

First, let’s define what exactly the two materials are. Both ABS and PLA are thermoplastics. Thermoplastics become malleable when superheated, thus allowing you to mold and sculpt them into different shapes prior to cooling. Moreover, you can repeat the process without affecting the integrity of the material. While both are used for making objects in 3D printing via similar processes, ABS and PLA differ in some key ways, and therefore some printers will only utilize ABS or PLA — or both, depending on the machine at hand. That said, below is a quick glance at the merits of each thermoplastic in case you’re wondering why the distinction exists to begin with.

ABS

ABS, short for Acylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, is an oil-based plastic. It is a strong, sturdy material that businesses widely use for constructing things such as plastic car parts, musical instruments, and the ever-popular Lego building blocks. ABS has a high melting point, and can experience warping if cooled while printing. Because of this, ABS objects must be printed on a heated surface, which is something many at-home printers do not have. ABS also requires ventilation when in use, as the fumes can be unpleasant. The aforementioned factors make ABS printing difficult for hobbyist printers, though, it’s the preferred material for professional applications.

Figurines printed with PLA
Figurines printed with PLA Creative Tools/Flickr

PLA

PLA, or Poly Lactic Acid, is made from organic material — specifically cornstarch and sugarcane. This makes the material both easier and safer to use, while giving it a smoother and shinier appearance that’s more aesthetically pleasing. The thermoplastic is also more pleasant on the nose, as the sugar-based material smells slightly sweet when heated opposed to the harsh smell often associated with ABS. However, while PLA might seem like a better overall choice at first glance, it features a far lower melting point than ABS. This means that using printed parts for mechanical operations, or even storing them in high-temperature locations, can result in the part warping, cracking, or melting. The material is also weaker than ABS, though, it can achieve a superior level of print detail and is less prone to errors while printing.

Conclusion

All things considered, there are some similarities between the two. Each requires a dry location for storage given the materials are prone to melting and warping, and furthermore, each is susceptible to moisture. Both ABS and PLA also smell while printing, as heating the thermoplastic gives off fumes. That said, it’s the print temperature that primarily affects intensity of said fumes — not so much the material itself. Yes, ABS will smell like hot plastic and require ventilation while PLA will smell mildly sweet, but the strength of these smells is going to be dependent on your printer.

However, there are also major differences between the two thermoplastics. ABS is going to give your projects better structural integrity and will be more suited to mechanical use given the material can better withstand the elements, but it will also require specific types of printers and printing surfaces. On the flip side, PLA will give you more precise prints and better aesthetic quality, as well as more flexibility with printing conditions if you can do without the strength and resilience of ABS. In simple terms, PLA is for hobbyist printers while ABS caters to those looking to produce commercial-grade parts that need to endure more rigorous wear and tear.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Outdoors

Snooze soundly anywhere you lay your head with the best sleeping bags

A proper sleeping bag has the ability to make or break a camping or backpacking trip. Here are our picks for the best sleeping bags on the market to help you choose the correct bag for any type of outdoor adventure.
Emerging Tech

The best 3D printers of 2018

On the hunt for a new 3D printer? We've got your back. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned veteran, this list of the best 3D printers has what you're looking for.
Product Review

This was 3D printed? With the Anycubic Photon, you can't tell

Never mind the fact that the Anycubic Photon 3D printer only costs 500 bucks. In terms of sheer print quality, this printer is on the same level as machines that cost six times as much.
Emerging Tech

Bright ‘hyperactive’ comet should be visible in the sky this weekend

An unusual green comet, 46P/Wirtanen, will be visible in the night sky this month as it makes its closest approach to Earth in 20 years. It may even be possible to see the comet without a telescope.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous images show storms and cloud formations in the atmosphere of Jupiter

NASA's Juno mission arrived at Jupiter in 2016 and has been collecting data since then. NASA has shared an update on the progress of the mission as it reaches its halfway point, releasing stunning images of the planet as seen from orbit.
Emerging Tech

Meet the MIT scientist who’s growing semi-sentient cyborg houseplants

Elowan is a cybernetic plant that can respond to its surroundings. Tethered by a few wires and silver electrodes, the plant-robot hybrid can move in response to bioelectrochemical signals that reflect the plant’s light demands.
Emerging Tech

Beautiful image of young planets sheds new light on planet formation

Researchers examining protoplanetary disks -- the belts of dust that eventually form planets -- have shared fascinating images of the planets from their survey, showing the various stages of planet formation.
Emerging Tech

Delivery robot goes up in flames while out and about in California

A small meal-delivery robot suddenly caught fire in Berkeley, California, on Friday. The blaze was quickly tackled and no one was hurt, but the incident is nevertheless a troubling one for the fledgling robot delivery industry.
Emerging Tech

High-tech dancing robot turns out to be a guy in a costume

A Russian TV audience was impressed recently by an adult-sized "robot" that could dance and talk. But when some people began pointing out that its actions were a bit odd, the truth emerged ... it was a fella in a robot suit.
Emerging Tech

MIT’s smart capsule could be used to release drugs in response to a fever

Researchers have developed a 3D-printed capsule which can monitor patients' vital signs, transmit this information to a connected device, and release drugs in response to symptoms.
Emerging Tech

‘Crop duster’ robot is helping reseed the Great Barrier Reef with coral

In a world first, an undersea robot has delivered microscopic coral larvae to the Great Barrier Reef. Meet Larvalbot: the robot "crop duster" which dispenses coral babies on troubled reefs.
Emerging Tech

Self-driving dirt rally vehicle offers crash course in autonomous car safety

Georgia Tech's AutoRally initiative pushes self-driving cars to their limit by getting scaled-down autonomous vehicles to drive really, really fast and aggressively on dirt roads. Here's why.
Features

Cities looking to get smart take a lesson from an iconic shopping mall

From Disney World to the Mall of America, public venues are becoming microcosms for smart city projects. We dove into both, to show what government officials can learn – and what you can expect from your city.