Most 3D printing is done in plastic. Modern plastic is wonderfully versatile, allowing for many shapes and a wide range of flexibility levels and weights, meaning it is a great material to use in many different products. Two of the most common and most popular kinds of plastic used in 3D printing are Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) and Polylactic Acid (PLA). Both forms of plastic see wide use outside of 3D printing in a number of everyday products. It makes sense to use them for 3D printing and many 3D printers are optimized with one of these two materials in mind.

What’s the difference between 3D printing with ABS and 3D printing with PLA, however? If both are commonly used plastic, does it matter which one you use to create a product?

ABS and PLA are very different, despite both being plastic. The difference between ABS and PLA is that ABs is a regular thermoplastic and PLA is a bioplastic, or biodegradable thermoplastic. As a result, they are sued for very different applications and 3D print in very different ways.

ABS is used to create many products that we use every day. It sees a lot of use in injection molding and is the kind of plastic used to make electronic housings, LEGOs, and many plastic automotive parts such as bumpers.

PLA is biodegradable under the right conditions. It is derived from sources such as sugarcane r corn starch. We see it used more often in disposable products, such as plastic cups, or in ones that need to be non-toxic even under tough conditions, such as medical implants.

As you can see, the differences between ABS and PLA are small but important. For 3D printing, the differences between ABS and PLA extend beyond just their usage. The nature of these two plastics affects the results of the 3D printing process works in some key ways.

Part Accuracy

Both ABS and PLA can produce very accurate 3D parts. However, PLA has advantages when it is properly cooled. For one, it is not as likely to warp and is easier to print with. It can also print sharper corners.

Strength

ABS and PLA have similar tensile strengths, though ABS is more ductile. It has a higher flexural strength and handles elongation better without breaking. This means that ABS can be a better choice when it comes to usable final products. PLA is often a better choice for quick prototypes or 3D printed pieces where form is more important than function.

Heat Resistance

If you need a part with heat resistance, it is better to use ABS instead of PLA. It has a higher glass transition temperature (105° vs. 60°). PLA will begin to deform as it approaches 60° C. It just cannot handle higher temperatures well.

It is worth noting that there is no odor when PLA is melted, while ABS smell strongly of burning plastic. It is very obvious when someone is 3D printing in ABS.

Post-Processing

Products produced with either ABS or PLA will have visible layers after they are completed. ABS is usually matte, while PLS is semi-transparent and more glossy.

They are post-processed in different ways. With ABS, acetone is often used to smooth the layers on the outside of the product and give it a glossy finish. It is also easy to sand and even drill into. PLA can also be sanded and drilled, but it is a more delicate process and cation must be used.

Degradability

PLA is biodegradable. It is non-toxic and safe for a variety of uses (such as children’s toys), but this means it has a limited shelf life. Expect PLA products to start disintegrating in a year.

ABS is not biodegradable, though you can recycle it. If you are creating a long-lasting product, ABS is what you want to use. It is the most common plastic we see today.

So…ABS or PLA?

At the end of the day, which of these two plastics you choose to use depends on what you want to 3D print. They are very similar in cost. Some general rules to follow.

  • PLA is a better choice when looks are what matters. It’s easy to use and easier to print, with more fidelity when it comes to fine details.
  • ABS is better for when you need function over form. It handles heat better, is more ductile, lasts longer, and easier to alter via machining processes.

At Jawstec, we know which material works best for every situation. We understand both their capabilities and their limitations. Contact us today so we can start turning your ideas into reality using 3D printing.

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