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What to expect with 3D printing
What to expect with 3D printing

A guide to 3D printing materials, limitations, and expectations

TJ Brown avatar
Written by TJ Brown
Updated this week

Taking the time to understand material selection, printer capabilities, and their limitations will allow you to design for manufacturability and set realistic expectations when ordering 3D prints. In this article, we will discuss common types of 3D printing and what to expect from each.

Acceptable File Types

You may place a 3D printing order using any of the file types listed under the 3D Printing header in this article.

Please note we will not print files that contain multiple bodies. These orders will be rejected and cancelled after submission.

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

FDM printers create layers by extruding molten thermoplastic material through a nozzle. Because of the nature of FDM printers, certain features may have a very thin string of material that must be removed by hand. (Imagine a taking hot slice of cheese pizza from the pie with bits of molten cheese stretching to keep them connected.)

Parts that feature overhangs or other tricky features require support material, which may affect the final finish of the part. At Fictiv, we use hobby-grade machines for parts printed in PLA to keep costs low, and professional-grade machines for parts printed in ABS to preserve accuracy and strength.

Parts with internal cavities will be printed by default with a 10-25% infill density. To specify a greater infill density, click the menu labelled “Infill” and select the option that will best meet your requirements for part performance, strength, and cost.

Note: Due to the low resolution of many part files exported in STL or OBJ format, some curved surfaces will have visible steps and will not appear as a smooth transition. Resolution refers to the layer height, not the dimensional accuracy and ability to hold tolerances.

Frequently used FDM materials

PLA: PLA is great for early-stage, low-detail prototyping. It’s inexpensive and recommended for parts where dimensional accuracy and aesthetic appeal are not as critical as proof-of-concept or basic form/fit. It’s a low-resolution material (.2mm) with visible layer lines. Some features may require that support material be manually removed after printing, which may leave noticeable residue. All internal cavities may have support material inside. We can only guarantee quality for walls greater than 1mm in thickness.

ABS: ABS is a relatively cost-effective material known for its strength. Because of the professional-grade printers used for ABS on our network, this material can handle complex geometries, though tolerances cannot be guaranteed. Unfinished ABS prints have visible layer lines due to the low resolution (.25mm). We can only guarantee quality for walls greater than 1mm in thickness. All internal cavities may have support material inside.

ABS ESD: ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) ESD (Electrostatic Discharge) is a material with static dissipation properties, so is used for applications where dust or mist may be attracted to other types of plastic parts. ABS ESD is a strong and durable thermoplastic material perfect for applications requiring static control. The material is highly resistant to wear, chemicals, and temperature changes, making it the perfect choice for demanding applications. It’s the ideal choice for manufacturers looking to produce reliable, high-quality parts with static control properties.

PETG: PETG is the most commonly used plastic in the world due to its use in water bottles. The material is considered a good middle ground between ABS and PLA because it’s more flexible and durable than PLA, and easier to print than ABS. The flexibility, strength, and resistance to high temperatures and impacts make it an ideal material for parts that experience sustained or sudden stress, such as mechanical parts, printer parts, and protective components.

ASA: ASA is a strong and durable thermoplastic material that’s well-suited for outdoor applications. This material is highly resistant to UV radiation, so it’s ideal for products that will be exposed to the elements. ASA is also highly resistant to wear, chemicals, and temperature changes, and FDM ASA provides superior strength and durability, making it the ideal choice for manufacturers looking to produce reliable, high-quality parts that will stand up to the elements.

PC: PC (Polycarbonate) offers high tensile and flexural strength, so is suitable for demanding applications or even fixtures and tooling. It’s also highly resistant to wear, chemicals, and temperature changes. FDM PC provides superior strength and durability, making it an ideal choice for manufacturers looking to produce reliable, high-quality parts.

PC+ABS: PC-ABS (Polycarbonate-Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is a unique blend of ABS and PC, offering the flexural strength of ABS with the heat resistance of PC. It’s a thermoplastic with heat resistance and high impact resistance — this material has one of the highest impact strengths of any FDM thermoplastic. The layer lines of this material are also less visible, which gives newly-printed parts a smoother finish and higher surface quality.


PolyJet

PolyJet printers work by jetting layers of liquid photopolymer and curing them with a UV light. These machines are capable of creating hi-res prints and can handle complicated geometries with ease.

PolyJet printers use a water-soluble, gel-like material to support overhangs and complex geometries. The support material is easily washed away by hand, assuming it is accessible (e.g., not enclosed in an internal cavity — this is strongly discouraged as the material will be trapped).

To prevent warping on parts with long, flat features, we advise adding ribs to increase support and structural integrity. The materials used in PolyJet printers are VeroBlack/White/Clear, ABS-Like, and Rubber-Like.

Frequently used PolyJet materials

VeroBlack/VeroWhite: Vero is great for fit-testing late-stage prototypes and creating visual models where aesthetic appeal must be considered. It’s a high-resolution material with minimally visible layer lines. We can only guarantee quality for walls greater than 1mm in thickness; anything 1mm or below cannot be guaranteed to print successfully.

Note: We do not recommend internal cavities when printing with Vero — the water-based support material may be impossible to remove and will expand over time, changing the geometry. Support material that is visible and easily reachable will be cleaned off by our manufacturing partner.

VeroClear: VeroClear is a translucent material that can be sanded and painted for increased transparency. It is a high-resolution material with minimally visible layer lines, assuming the print is optimally oriented on the print bed. We can only guarantee quality for walls greater than 1mm in thickness; anything 1mm or below cannot be guaranteed to print successfully.

As with Vero, we do not recommend internal cavities when printing with VeroClear, as the water-based support material will be impossible to remove and it will expand over time, changing the geometry. Support material that is visible and easily reachable will be cleaned off by the manufacturing partner.

ABS-Like: ABS-Like has the same hi-res look as Vero, but is much stronger and more durable — so it’s great for high-accuracy parts. As with other 3D printing materials, wall thickness must be greater than 1.0mm to reduce the risk of breakage during printing and cleaning. Internal cavities are strongly discouraged as the water-based support material will expand over time, affecting the geometry. Support material that is visible and easy to reach will be cleaned off.

Rubber-Like: Rubber-Like is a black elastomer that mimics the flexibility of rubber parts, although it’s not as elastic. It’s great for printing overmolds, soft-touch finishes, non-slip surfaces, and water-tight seals. It’s available in shore values ranging from 27A to 90A. Though it is high-resolution, build lines may be more visible due to the nature of the material.

Note: Rubber-Like’s minimum wall thickness is 2.0mm; anything below cannot be guaranteed to print successfully. As with all other PolyJet materials, we do not recommend internal cavities when printing with Rubber-Like as the water-based support material will be impossible to remove and will expand over time, changing the geometry. Support material that is visible and easily reachable can be cleaned off.


Selective Laser Sintering (SLS)

SLS printers create layers by sintering Nylon powder that is spread evenly on a print bed. SLS printers do not use a different support material; rather, the Nylon powder acts as the support material during the build. For this reason, we strongly discourage internal cavities and other tight features which may trap the Nylon powder. Unlike our FDM printing standards, SLS printers will produce solid infill.

Depending on the size of the part, the process of cooling the finished parts may take as long as the print time, which is why SLS Nylon carries a longer lead time than our other offerings. Cooling layers too quickly can warp large parts — and large, flat parts are especially susceptible to cooling unevenly and warping. So, consider adding ribs to flat parts and avoid printing large flat parts with SLS if possible.

Frequently used SLS materials

Nylon: Nylon is not as hi-res as our PolyJet offerings, but is still superior to FDM resolution. Nylon is strong, durable, and has some flex, making it great for snap-fit components, brackets, and clips. Nylon is also great for thermal applications, as it can withstand temperatures of up to 177 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). The texture of Nylon SLS parts is similar to that of fine grit sandpaper with a matte finish.

Nylon 12 Glass-Filled (Duraform GF): Glass-Filled Nylon 12 is a high-performance material designed for creating strong and durable parts. The mixture of nylon 12 and fine glass fibers provides a unique combination of strength, stiffness, and chemical resistance. It has an elevated temperature resistance, making it suitable for a variety of applications, including automotive, aerospace, and medical.

Nylon 12 Glass-Filled material is also resistant to abrasion, fatigue, and corrosion, so is a good choice for a variety of components in the aerospace, automotive and medical industries. Common applications include: housings and enclosures, consumer sporting goods, complex prototype plastic parts, and form, fit, and functional prototypes.

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF)

MJF is a powder bed fusion 3D printing technology similar to SLS. Nylon powder is deposited over a build platform, where a nozzle sprays fusing agent onto areas that need to be hardened. An infrared light then passes over the bed to create the layers by sintering the sprayed material.

Parts made using MJF are highly accurate and durable, making it an optimal process for precision prototypes and production parts. MJF parts have a comparable surface finish and slightly better resolution when compared to SLS parts, and are more cost-effective at higher production quantities.

Frequently used MJF materials

PA12 Nylon: Like with SLS, Nylon parts printed on MJF printers are not as hi-res as PolyJet parts, but are still superior to FDM resolution. Compared to SLS, PA12 parts printed with MJF have superior flexibility, heat deflection, and strength. This nylon is also well-suited for thermal applications, as it can withstand temperatures of up to 175 degrees Celsius (347 degrees Fahrenheit). Due to the dark color of the fusing agent, MJF parts have a light grey appearance by default but can be dyed black to achieve a more uniform aesthetic.

PA12 Nylon Glass Bead: PA12 Glass Bead (also known as Glass-filled) is a plastic reinforced with glass. Compared to normal PA12 Nylon, this material is stiffer, more dimensionally stable, and can be used under heavy loads. If you're looking to mitigate warpage of a part printed in Nylon, especially for parts with long, thin geometries, PA12 Nylon Glass Bead is a good option.

Nylon 11: Due to its high impact-resistance and ductile strength, Nylon 11 is best suited for impact-resistant prototypes, jigs, and fixtures. Nylon 11 can also be used for thin-walled ducts and enclosures. The ductile properties make it exceptional for features that must move without breaking, including snaps, clips, and hinges.

Nylon 11 is perfect for 3D printed enclosures and assemblies. Its ductile properties make it resistant to snapping when designing and building clips, hinges, and other mating features. Nylon 11 is also strong, so can be used for tooling, jigs, and fixtures where the build may encounter impact forces.

Polypropylene: Need to 3D print a medical device or automotive component that will interact with fluid? Polypropylene could be your best choice. This material is perfect for applications that require high-use cycles and low mositure absorbtion.

Polypropylene is great for applications where the material will continually be cycled in and out of stress due to its fatigue resistance and semi-flexible characteristics. Polypropylene is lightweight and can be used to reduce the overall weight of the printed component. Polypropylene is a versatile material, ideal for 3D printing due to its strength, durability, and affordability.

Stereolithography (SLA)

Stereolithography, or SLA, is a 3D printing technology known for achieving highly detailed and functionally accurate parts. The technology utilizes a mirror that is programmed to direct an ultraviolet laser to draw and cure a part’s cross-section onto a vat of photopolymer resin.

After each layer, the build platform lowers and a recoater blade wipes over a new layer of material on the top of the tank. Once the part is complete, it’s removed from the build chamber, cleaned of support and excess resin (typically using isopropyl alcohol), and then placed in a UV oven for further curing.

Frequently used SLA materials

Accura 25: Accura 25 is a durable and flexible SLA 3D printing material. With a Shore D Hardness of 80, Accura 25 can be used as an alternative to machined Polypropylene and ABS. It’s ideal for snap-fit part designs, as a master pattern for urethane casting, and conceptual modeling. Accura 25 can be used for functional prototyping or end-use parts. Aesthetically, the material has excellent resolution and dimensional accuracy, and can be primed and painted after printing.

Accura 60: Accura 60 is a clear blend of epoxy-resin and hardener that is designed to provide superior accuracy and surface finish. Accura 60 is highly stable, with a low thermal expansion rate, making it an ideal choice for intricate designs. It’s a durable material, boasting a high impact strength and good chemical and electrical resistance, while being easy to post-process and allows for a wide range of finishes. SLA Accura 60 is a reliable and cost-effective option for a variety of 3D printing applications.

Accura Xtreme White 200: Accura Xtreme White 200 is a blended epoxy-resin and hardener 3D printing material. It provides superior accuracy and surface finish. Accura Xtreme White 200 material is ideal for applications that require dimensional and color accuracy, such as commercial product prototyping and architectural models. Parts made from Accura Xtreme 200 can also replace CNC-machined polypropylene or ABS.

Accura Xtreme Grey: Accura Xtreme Grey is a blended epoxy-resin and hardener 3D printing material. It provides superior accuracy and surface finish. Accura Xtreme Grey material is ideal for applications that require dimensional accuracy, such as commercial product prototyping and architectural models. Parts made from Accura Xtreme Grey can also replace CNC-machined polypropylene or ABS.

Accura ClearVue: Accura ClearVue is a translucent material with a good balance of aesthetic and physical properties. Comparable to machined polycarbonate, this material has substantial durability, considerable moisture resistance, and a smooth surface finish.

Accura ClearVue + Clear Coat: Accura ClearVue with Clear Coat can achieve the highest level of transparency of all our 3D printing material offerings. It’s the most suitable for high-clarity applications like optics, packaging, and visualization models or assemblies.

Designing for Manufacturability

Please keep in mind we do not offer DFM review for 3D printed parts by our manufacturing engineers — other than monitoring for walls that are too thin to print reliably — and we currently leave print orientation to the discretion of our manufacturing partners. However, with the above capabilities and expectations in mind, you should be able to design for manufacturability and set realistic expectations.

For a more in-depth look at our processes, materials, and finishes, as well as downloadable material data sheets, please check out our Capabilities Guide.

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