ABS vs PLA – Which is Better for 3D Printing?

It’s an indisputable fact — for the best 3D printing results one needs to use the right materials. When choosing 3D printing materials, factors to consider include strength, flexibility, and printing temperature. In your search, you will come across different types of 3D printing materials each with unique characteristics and in regards to design accuracy and sturdiness of the final print. ABS and PLA filament materials are the two most commonly used. This post explores the unique differences between the two materials to help you choose the best option.

ABS vs PLA in 3D Printing

abs-vs-pla

ABS vs PLA (source)

Both ABS and PLA filament materials are thermoplastics. Thermoplastic is a term used to describe materials that become malleable when temperatures are elevated. When heated, you can mold them into any shape before cooling. The melting and molding happen with minimal interference to the structural integrity of the material.

ABS and PLA filaments are both used in 3D printing using the same process. Nevertheless, these two printing materials have distinct characteristics that set them apart from each other. For that reason, some 3D printers may not be compatible with both. Below is a quick overview of the feature of these printing materials.

ABS

ABS comprises of Acrylonitrile, Butadiene and Styrene polymers. This material is ideal for FDM and FFF 3D printing. You can expect spectacular results with this printing material. In natural form ABS is white, but it assumes a yellow tinge when heated. ABS plastics are known to be lightweight with high tensile strength.

Strength

ABS materials are also abrasion resistant and possess heat deflection properties. ABS materials have a considerably longer lifespan. The filament materials are known for higher tensile strength and superb flexibility. ABS is mostly applicable to rapid prototyping of parts and assemblies.

Under prolonged exposure to moisture, ABS material will foam and shoot from the nozzle during the printing process. That often leads to poor resolution and prints with reduced design accuracy. It can also block the nozzle and lead to under extrusion.

Melting Point

Even though ABS has no single melting point, the best printing temperature for the material is about 230 °C. You can still get superb results by printing at any temperature between 210 -240º C.
Printing Process and Performance

For proper adherence of the first layer, you will need a preheated printing bed with this filament material. Since most consumer-grade printers don’t come with such printing beds, the use of ABS material has been limited to industrial 3D printing.

ABS is perfect for the manufacture of auto parts, architectural models and building blocks. When printing with ABS materials, you will need to do it outside or in a properly ventilated room. That is because the material emits toxic fumes with unpleasant smells when heated. Over-exposure to the heated ABS fumes can cause breathing problems, skin and eye irritation.

Post processing

The final ABS prints will need post-processing. The layer by layer printing process of FDM means that that the print layers will be visible on the final print.
You can use acetone to smooth the final ABS material printed part which also gives it a glossy finish. You can also smooth the edges by sanding. The 3D printed object can also be drilled, but you will need to be cautious when doing that.

Cost

ABS filaments are readily available in e-commerce stores. There are different brands of ABS filaments. By doing a little research, you will be able to find out which brand is the best to work within your project. On average you can expect to part with about $20USD for a kilogram of ABS filaments. Cheaper ones tend to be substandard. As you look for a bargain ensure you are also getting the real deal.

PLA

Also known as “Green Plastic” PLA is a filament material created from sugarcane and corn starch. PLA is an environmentally friendly plastic both before and after heating in the 3D printing process. PLA filaments are readily available in a variety of colors and styling.
PLA can remain stable in normal temperature conditions. The material is biodegradable within about 50 days when in contact with water or composters. For that reason, the material needs storage away from humid conditions. PLA material is approved for contact with food.

Strength

PLA materials have decent tensile strength. However, its flexibility and elongation at a break is just about the same as ABS materials. PLA filaments are easy to print, and you will find that the final part is fairly resistant to warping.

Important to note however is the fact the material needs storage in cool conditions. The low melting point of the PLA material can make them prone to warping when temperatures rise ever so slightly. When it comes to tensile strength, ABS performs better than PLA. When it comes to achieving design accuracy the better of the two is PLA.
PLA also foams when it is exposed to moisture for a long time. PLA prints tend to assume a slight discoloration and reduce in size. The solidification process is fast; it dries in ordinary temperature needing no external source.

Melting Point

PLA has a melting point of about 180 °C. In light of that PLA is the printing material of choice for many at home and in school laboratories. The other factor about PLA is that you don’t need a preheated printing bed for the layers to stick. PLA is not suitable for printing high-temperature application parts.
Printing process and performance

PLA flows much better than ABS, allowing you to print designs with complex dimensions and at higher speeds. PLA is effective at producing prints with sharp corners. It is resistant to warping and therefore does not require a heated printing bed. The printed part is brighter and glossier than ABS.

PLA filaments have a smooth and shiny appearance, thus producing aesthetically appealing prints. The sugarcane compound in the material makes it emit a sweet smelling scent when heated. That is a big contract to ABS which lets out unpleasant smells under high temperatures. Also, PLA is easy to a print and adheres well with little shrinkage. You will have peace of mind and little worry that it will warp, lift or crack when printing.

Post processing

For PLA, post-processing involves polishing with Tetrahydrofuran (THF). PLA cannot dissolve in acetone. You can use Sodium Hydroxide to smooth out the edges. PLA material is sometimes used to print dissolvable supports from ABS printing.

Price

PLA is cheap and readily available. A kilogram of PLA filaments goes at about $19USD. There are different brands of varying colors and styles available for choosing. Again, you will need to carry out some research to enable you to get the best quality PLA printing materials.

PLA vs ABS Pros and Cons

ABS Pros

  • It is light and has a high tensile strength
  • It has a high resistance to abrasion
  • It can maintain its form even under high temperatures
  • ABS prints can be processed in chemical treatments
  • ABS filaments are readily available
  • ABS materials have a longer shelf life

ABS Cons

  • Printing ABS materials need a preheated print bed
  • ABS materials are likely to warp when cooling
  • ABS filaments emit toxic wastes into the atmosphere
  • They need a high printing temperature leading to energy wastage

PLA Pros

  • It is safer than ABS
  • PLA filaments are easy to print
  • You can print a faster flow rate
  • PLA is resistant to warping
  • It doesn’t require a heated printing bed for adherence
  • PLA can be used to achieve high design accuracy in complex prints
  • PLA filaments are cheap and available anywhere
  • Does not emit toxic fumes
  • It is biodegradable

PLA Cons

  • PLA materials can undergo deformation in high-temperature conditions
  • PLA is tacky and a little harder to handle compared to ABS
  • Although PLA can easily dry at between 50-60 °C, it is worth noting that the plastic may alter the degree of crystallization, leading to structural changes
  • Parts made from PLA often begin to disintegrate within a year, which therefore means is not suitable for creating superior quality mock-ups

ABS vs PLA Filament: Which is The Best?

The choice between ABS and PLA depends on the application of the 3D print. PLA and ABS have varying strengths. If you are looking to avoid wear and tear in the final copy, you can go for ABS printing- it is abrasion resistant. On the other hand, if you need a sturdy and robust part then PLA is the best choice for its high tensile strength.

ABS is strong when printed at high enough temperatures. It has a considerable level of flexibility and can withstand high impact. For that reason many, manufacturers prefer ABS materials over PLA. The later can easily break and chip when under pressure.

The Takeaway

ABS and PLA are both desktop 3D printing materials, and they are available at about the same cost. ABS has superb mechanical properties compared to PLA. ABS is much harder to print than PLA. ABS is ideal for printing parts and applications that need ductility, high thermal stability, and high strength. PLA delivers immeasurable design accuracy and beauty, and it is perfect for printing designs with complex geometries. PLA has a low melting point, and it is, therefore, easy to print.

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