- 2023 Update
Over the past few years, 3D printing technology has seen remarkable advancements, not only in terms of the machines themselves but also in the materials utilised for product manufacturing. This significant development has brought about a surge in the variety of 3D printing materials available, with material manufacturers constantly innovating and creating new materials that can cater to diverse industrial requirements.
From the traditional polymers, metals, and composites to unconventional materials such as concrete, bioinks, and food, the list of materials used in 3D printing is rapidly expanding. In this article, we’ll explore the popular 3D printing materials is use right now.
Popular 3D Printing Materials
Polymers are the most widely used materials in 3D printing. It was also the first material to be used in the first-ever 3D printing technology (Stereolithography). So, while there are many variants of the polymer material which are used in filament, resin or powder form, the popularity of polymers is unmatched.
Some of the most popular 3D printing materials used in FDM (Fused Deposition Modelling) technology include PolyLactic Acid (PLA), Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS), PolyEthyleneTerapthalate-Glycol (PETG), Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU) Carbon Fiber, Nylon, Polycarbonate (PC), PolyEtherEtherKetone (PEEK) and many more. Polymers used in FDM technology are called as Thermoplastics (these materials can be transformed from solid to liquid and back again to solid with the application of heat and cold).
Resins are used in multiple 3D printing technologies like Stereolithography (SLA) and Material Jetting (MJ). These materials are not known by their chemical names like in the case of FDM materials but are named as per their application. For example, some of the well known materials are High-temperature, Dental, Biocompatible, Jewellery, Standard, Flexible, etc. These however are thermosetting polymers (materials which once transformed from liquid to solid state, cannot be reversed to the liquid state)
Lastly, polymers are also used in powdered form in Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), Binder Jetting (BJ) and MultiJet Fusion (MJF) technologies. Some of the popular powdered polymer materials are Polyamide 11 (PA11), Polyamide 12 (PA12), Polystyrenes (PS), thermoplastic elastomers (TPE), and polyaryletherketones (PAEK).
Composites are classified as either basic or general purpose composites or industrial composites. Wood/polymer and metal/polymer composites are the most common general-purpose composites available in filament form. A small amount of wood or metal is combined with the polymer to form a filament. These are mostly used to meet the needs of the product.
Industrial composite materials used in 3D printing refer to complex and special-purpose materials such as carbon fibre and fibreglass that improve product durability and strength. Though these materials are not commonly used, they are used in specific applications.
3D printing of composites can be carried out in two different ways namely, chopped fibre and continuous fibre. While some 3D printers are capable of printing with chopped fibres while others are designed to print with a continuous fibre thus giving a uniform reliability and and predictable performance. Both have their own set of advantages and limitations.
Most commonly used metals are Stainless Steel, Aluminium, Cobalt, Nickel and its derivatives. It is obvious that these materials give better strength. These are mostly used in SLM (Selective Laser Melting), DMLS (Direct Metal Laser Sintering) and EBM (Electron beam machining) processes, and they are now largely into regular usage.
Gold and Silver can also be directly used as a material for jewellery making. These are very popular materials to be used in powdered form. Another material, Titanium, which is one of the strongest metal is also used in specific applications like healthcare, aerospace and sports cars. To know more about the various metals, read our dedicated article on Comprehensive List of Metal 3D Printing Materials.
Metal materials are also used as metal rods in Bound Metal Deposition™ (BMD) an extrusion-based metal 3D printing technology developed by Desktop Metal.
Because of their unique properties and ability to withstand high temperatures, ceramic materials are gaining popularity in the world of 3D printing. Ceramics have been used in 3D printing to create intricate and highly detailed objects with fine surface finishes. Ceramic materials have a wide range of applications, including aerospace, biomedicine, and architecture.
3D printing with ceramics entails depositing a paste made of powdered ceramics mixed with a binding agent layer by layer to form the desired shape. The printed object is then sintered at high temperatures to remove the binding agent and fuse the ceramic particles together, yielding a strong and long-lasting final product. Ceramics are an exciting material to investigate in 3D printing technology due to their versatility and strength.
Biocompatible Materials & Bioinks
Biocompatible materials used in 3D printing are critical in the medical field. The medical field has benefited greatly from 3D printing technology in terms of producing bones, prosthetic parts, customised sensors and devices (hearing devices), and so on. While the majority of these products are made from standard materials such as PLA and ABs for external studies and titanium for implants, researchers have developed biocompatible materials as well. Companies such as Formlabs, EnvisionTec, Carbon, and others provide such materials for use in products that come into contact with the human body.
Aside from that, the researchers have created bio-inks. These are the materials that can be used to print body parts such as tissues, ears, and hearts. While most applications are still in the early stages of development, bioinks are a reality and are widely used for research purposes.
Food 3D printing is a novel application of 3D printing technology that has gained considerable attention in recent years. It entails using edible materials such as chocolate, or a paste of any kind of food batter to create intricate and personalised food designs. The potential of food 3D printing is vast, ranging from designing unique and creative culinary creations to creating personalised diets for individuals with specific dietary needs.
Some of the most recent advancements in food 3D printing include the ability to print with a broader range of food materials, such as plant-based alternatives to traditional animal products, as well as advancements in printing technology that allow for greater precision and detail in the final product. There are obvious concerns about the food passing from the machines which might be oiled and greased and will the food be healthy, but such concerns are not an issue now. These are more or less solved and just like any machine used in traditional processes to make food, food 3D printing too is now getting safer by the day.
Companies like Redefine Meat, SavorEat, Revo Foods are already using 3D printing to create plant-based vegan meat and seafood. These meat variants are also now available in select countries and restaurants. So, the industry surely has potential.
Construction 3D printing or concrete 3D printing, is the process of printing structures with concrete materials. Even though these printers use the additive manufacturing principle, they face different challenges, and the 3D printing process is thus slightly different in terms of the equipment used, the parameters to be controlled, and the systems to print a structure.
Concrete is a complex material and thus the technology ecosystem slightly differs in terms of the equipment used, the parameters to be controlled, and the systems to print a structure. Several construction 3D printing companies are making extensive use of 3D printing to bring the technology into the mainstream of construction and many have achieved good success.
The Dubai 3D Printing Strategy is one of the most visible projects announced by the UAE government. Among the concrete initiatives included in the Strategy is the implementation of a new law requiring the manufacture of 25% of new building components using 3D printing technology by 2025.
Proprietary materials are custom manufactured materials that are developed as a solution for specific applications. These are not generally developed by OEMs in collaboration with the end-user aimed at solving the problems faced by the end-user, or to solve a particular challenge they want to overcome or even to gain a competitive advantage over their rivals.
The most popular example is of the material development and collaboration between Carbon and Adidas. They both have worked extensively on developing a materials for their 3D printed shoe. These materials are not made available to the general market as these fall under proprietary clauses and NDAs. So, many a times it may happen that the news of such materials is not even disclosed to public at large. Such materials require extensive research and experimentation and can take years to develop and thus gives the developers a competitive edge.
These can be any material like a polymer, metal, ceramic, bioinks, etc., and are created by combining various types of available materials with additives to provide superior performance.
The field of 3D printing has come a long way since its inception, and the materials used in the process have also advanced significantly. The list of 3D printing materials is constantly growing, ranging from traditional materials like polymers, composites, and metals to unconventional materials like ceramics, bioinks, food, and concrete. Manufacturer-developed proprietary materials are also becoming more popular, broadening the range of options available to users. With each material having its own set of properties and advantages, the possibilities for 3D printing applications are virtually limitless. We can expect even more groundbreaking innovations in the field of 3D printing as technology advances and more materials are developed.
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