3D Printing Materials: ABS vs PLA

So you want to print something with a 3D printer. There are many different materials that can be used, but most desktop 3D printers recommend using either ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene ) or PLA (Poly lactic acid) plastic filament. Both plastics are thermoplastics, which means they become pliable at a specific temperature and solid when cooled. The temperature at which these thermoplastics will properly feed through the printer varies based on printing speeds, filament type, and even filament color.

The great thing about both ABS and PLA is that they will consistently react to being heated and cooled. This characteristic allows us to take a bunch of plastic pellets, melt them down, and extrude them into quality filament. You will then repeat the process by feeding the filament through the 3D printer, which melts it down and prints your creation.

Although both plastics have their similarities, there are important differences that will help determine which type is best for your application.

Plastic pellets prior to extrusion into filament (Gizmo Dorks PLA uses NatureWorks LLC 4032D pellets)

ABS Plastic

Utility:  ABS is a strong plastic that is used to make durable prints. In comparison to PLA, ABS has more flex and can withstand higher temperatures. It can also be dissolved in Acetone, which is great for finishing or combining pieces. Carefully use a couple of drops of Acetone on ABS prints to bond them together. Or for a smoother glossy finish, brush the print with Acetone.

Odor:  When heated, ABS does produce a plastic smell as it is petroleum based product. It is wise to always print in a properly ventilated area.

Heated Print Bed:  Yes, definitely.

ABS prints have a tendency to warp, especially at the base of the print. A clean and heated print surface helps eliminate this issue. Be aware that ABS will also warp if the heated surface is set too high. Turn down the heat bed temperature a little after the first few layers.

Printing Tips:  It is important to get the first layer to adhere to the print surface. One method is to use Polyimide Tape (Kapton tape) on the build plate. The ABS sticks better to the polymide tape and it will also protect the print bed from any residue. Another method is to coat the build plate with hairspray. Although this will leave a residue on the print surface, the ABS will stick well to the hairspray.

Our ABS filament comes vacuum sealed with a desiccant to prevent any moisture absorption. This is because ABS will bubble and spurt while printing if the filament is exposed to the humidity in the air. The inconsistent extrusion will cause inaccuracies, visual quality, and also clogging in the nozzle. If this happens, simply dry the filament using a dehydrator or placing the filament in a sealed container/bag with a dehumidifier/desiccant gel.

PLA Plastic

PLA plastic typically used for food containers

Utility:  PLA is the plastic typically found in food packaging and containers. It is the more eco-friendly printing material since it is made from renewable resources (corn, potatoes). PLA is stiffer and harder than ABS which makes it less flexible and more brittle. PLA also doesn’t warp nearly as much, making printing large parts easier. If you are looking for finer detail work, PLA produces sharper edges than ABS. This is because PLA becomes much more fluid when heated, so when you actively cool the print, there is a higher definition. The melting temperature of PLA is low enough that your prints can become deformed if left by a heat source or in a hot car. So keep the application of your print in mind when choosing PLA.

Odor:  PLA is practically odorless, with maybe a hint of oil smell when heated.

Heated Print Bed:  Not required.

But it helps the first few layers of the print adhere to the printing surface. This becomes important when printing large pieces, as some warping may occur.

Printing Tips:  For all 3D printing, first layer adhesion sets the foundation for a quality print. Although PLA will stick to most surfaces, Blue Tape (painters tape) is commonly used on the print bed. When using blue tape, don’t heat the print bed, it will not adhere well. Make sure to apply the blue tape evenly so there aren’t any bumps and overlapping edges.

Active cooling can produce prints with more details. Some printers have built in fans, and if not, a small desk fan will work. This will help the PLA set more accurately, and it improves printing layers that are cantilevered.

Our PLA filament comes vacuum sealed with desiccant to prevent any moisture absorption. This is because PLA will bubble and spurt while printing if the filament is exposed to the humidity in the air. Printing inaccuracies, visual quality, clogging in the nozzle, and discoloration are all symptoms to PLA with too much moisture. The filament can be dried the same way ABS is dried, however the characteristic of the PLA may be changed, which would affect printing temperatures and other print settings.

In summary, ABS and PLA are the two most common filaments used for desktop 3D printing. Based on your printer and type of print, you can decide which one is better suits your needs. The variety of colors available for both plastics can be endless, as colorants are added in the process. Keep in mind that PLA is naturally more transparent, although solid PLA colors are also available.

If you are looking to venture into different materials, HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene) is very similar to ABS. The main difference is that it dissolves in Limonene instead of Acetone. It’s commonly used as support for ABS prints since ABS doesn’t dissolve in Limonene.

Quick Reference Chart

Stronger & more flexible Harder, more rigid, more brittle
Bond using adhesives or acetone Bond using adhesives
Plastic odor when extruding Odorless
Prints stick well to polymide tape Prints stick well to blue tape
Tendency to warp when printing Tendency to warp in hot environments
Requires heated print bed Heated print bed not required
Made from petroleum Made from renewable resources (more eco-friendly)