ABS and PLA are perhaps the most commonly used additive manufacturing filaments and have unique features, advantages, and disadvantages.
They both work in some of the most affordable 3D printers, but which should you choose for your print?
ABS and PLA 3D printing filaments are both made of thermoplastic, so they work with extrusion 3D printers. PLA is most popular with hobbyists since it isn’t as heat resistant as ABS, and ABS is tough and light enough to make it the ideal solution for rapid prototyping. ABS is more toxic than PLA.
Despite the two filaments appearing to be similar, there are significant differences between the two, and your choice of filament will depend on various factors.
Let’s compare PLA and ABS and their prototyping applications more closely.
The Key Properties Of PLA and ABS
To start, let’s compare the material properties of PLA and ABS. The materials have vastly different properties, and any appearance of them being similar disappears when comparing them closely.
The Similarities Between ABS and PLA
ABS and PLA are both thermoplastics. ABS is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, and PLA is Polylactic Acid. Though the two materials are different, they are both susceptible to damage through UV rays and moisture.
The Differences Between ABS and PLA
PLA is relatively brittle, making ABS considerably stronger. In tests, hooks printed with PLA could handle weights of up to 184 lbs, whereas the same hooks printed with ABS could handle up to 284 lbs. That’s a considerable difference in strength.
ABS is also much better at handling heat and direct sunlight than PLA, but ABS also doesn’t tolerate cold temperatures, which will increase its brittleness and make the models crack. On the other hand, ABS is more flexible than PLA, so ABS is more suitable for usage cases where more flexibility is required.
PLA is also plant-based, unlike ABS, which is purely synthetic. This makes PLA more recyclable and generally safer than ABS, but more on that later.
3D Printing With ABS vs PLA
Because of their material differences, 3D printing with the two materials differs quite a lot, even though many 3D printers can handle either PLA or ABS. You should take care to use appropriate settings and care for the type of filament you choose.
1. ABS Requires An Enclosed 3D Printer
Both ABS and PLA are toxic; they both release poisonous gases and harmful nanoparticles during extrusion. But Dr. Fabrizio Merlo and Dr. Eng. Stefano Mazzoni found that ABS releases between 3 and 30 times more of these gases and particles than PLA. These gases could include ammonia, cyanuric acid, benzene, and phenol.
Of course, you should always take general precautions while 3D printing, like ensuring ample ventilation, wearing protective masks, and not breathing in the fumes when you stand too close to the 3D printer. But ABS requires some additional steps, and one requirement is an enclosed 3D printer.
Additional to the health risks, an enclosed 3D printer will help to maintain the correct temperatures that ABS requires. Most affordable 3D printers can print with ABS, but they are generally not enclosed, which poses a greater risk. If you plan on using ABS, pay a bit more to get the safer option. But be careful when you open the enclosure since it will release all the gases at once.
2. Different Bed Temperatures
PLA doesn’t need a heated bed, even though most people prefer to heat the bed to approximately 60°C (140°F). This makes it easier to remove the model after printing, and it could make a difference in how well the filament sticks to the bed in some cases, but the printer will usually work just as well without the heated bed.
ABS is a different matter entirely. As mentioned, ABS is far less susceptible to heat but more sensitive to cold than PLA. Because of this, ABS prints easily warp and buckle if the bed is too cold.
To print with ABS, you should set the print bed temperature between 80°C and 110°C (176°F – 230°F). The exact temperatures differ between brands, so check with the filament’s manufacturer to be sure.
3. Different Extrusion Temperatures
ABS and PLA have different melting temperatures, though there isn’t a massive difference.
For best results using PLA, which has a low melting point, you should set the nozzle at a lower printing temperature anywhere between 180°C and 230°C (356°F to 446°F).
Most people use about 205°C (401°F) as a safe middle ground. However, keep in mind that PLA becomes more toxic at temperatures over 200°C.
ABS has a slightly higher melting point, so you should set the nozzle temperature between 210°C and 250°C (410°F and 482°F).
4. Different Printing Speeds
Most people use PLA and ABS at precisely the same speed, which works perfectly. The ideal speed for both is about 60mm/s.
The difference is that, for PLA, this is about the lowest speed that makes sense, and many people have had success printing much faster than that. For ABS, 60mm/s is close to the maximum practical printing speed since it should print between 40mm/s and 60mm/s.
Thankfully, the speed should be the least concerning aspect since a safe 60mm/s should be perfect regardless of which filament you use.
5. Ease Of Use
PLA is notoriously easier to use than ABS, which is why most schools that teach 3D printing and rapid prototyping use PLA filaments. That’s because PLA works with more flexible temperatures for the bed and nozzle, and you generally don’t have to tamper with as many settings to get the printer to work. It’s also far less toxic.
ABS is only suitable for those with plenty of experience in 3D printing, and even then, it will take some tampering with the settings to get your prints perfect.
PLA Vs. ABS – After Printing
Now you know the different ways to 3D print with PLA and ABS. But what about after you’ve finished printing? There are a few differences here, too.
If you print the same model with PLA and ABS, you will notice they look different. The first and most striking difference is that a PLA print will have a shinier surface, and ABS prints will have more of a matte finish.
PLA also has higher colour saturation, so when comparing the two side-by-side immediately after printing, the PLA print will look far more striking, and the ABS model will appear almost dull in comparison.
These cosmetic differences become less important if you post-process your 3D-printed models.
Differences In Post-Processing
PLA and ABS can both be post-processed in various ways. Sanding and painting work wonders to eliminate the rough texture and layering that come with filament printing.
It’s easier to sand ABS than PLA. The strong but flexible material handles sanding paper much better than PLA, and, depending on how delicate the layers are, ABS prints have less of a chance of becoming brittle as you sand them.
ABS also works better with solvent-based smoothing processes like acetone vapour. These techniques are popular ways to make models appear more polished and shinier, and it’s much easier to use these solvents on ABS than on PLA.
Storage Of Models
As mentioned, PLA and ABS are sensitive to direct sunlight, moisture, UV rays, and adverse weather conditions. That’s why keeping your 3D-printed models in an area with none of these factors is crucial. A reasonably cool, air-conditioned room with no direct sunlight is ideal.
The storage rules are identical except for one factor: temperatures.
PLA is more sensitive to excessive heat than ABS. Storing PLA models in rooms that are too hot can result in the model becoming brittle and losing structural integrity. You may also see the outer texture warping or becoming uneven.
ABS, on the other hand, is more sensitive to extremely cold temperatures. It’s not a good idea to use ABS to 3D print something that will be used outside on cold winter nights, as cold temperatures will cause it to crack and break apart.
PLA and ABS are great for making anything from hobbyist models to prototypes or production parts, but they are not ideal for any use that requires much strength, and any high-friction use would soon wear the model out.
However, ABS will handle it better than PLA since it’s more flexible and less susceptible to heat. It takes more force to break PLA than ABS, but ABS will warp and bend before it breaks. In other words, PLA is more robust but also more brittle, so ABS is better for most practical applications.
Recycling And Environmental Impact
One factor that always follows 3D printing is waste, and it seems there are always strings of wasted filament lying around that will never be used. With this in mind, environmental considerations are essential, even for disposing of old 3D-printed models you no longer want or need.
PLA is made of plant-based starches, making it safe to recycle and relatively environmentally friendly. ABS is petroleum-based, so recycling is much more challenging, and you should only dispose of it in ways your local government approves.
PLA vs ABS – Ideal Usage Scenarios
You can use PLA and ABS for multiple real world applications, and the properties we’ve mentioned should help you decide which is best for your scenario. However, the following ideal usage scenarios should help guide you:
- PLA is generally the most popular choice for hobbyists because it’s so easy to use. People use PLA to 3D print models for display purposes or figurines for tabletop games, among other things.
- Because PLA is so strong, it’s also useful for printing brackets or hinges that won’t hold too much weight.
- ABS will be your best bet in cases requiring more flexibility and less brittle material since ABS can handle more weight without breaking.
- ABS is also easier to post-process, so if cosmetic appearance is what you’re after, ABS will make it slightly more manageable for you.
- ABS can also handle more friction, so if you’re 3D printing a part that will make many rapid movements, ABS might be a better option than PLA.
When it comes to 3D printing, choosing between PLA and ABS filaments is a crucial decision that depends on the specific needs of your project and the resources available to you.
Both ABS and PLA are thermoplastics that can be used with extrusion-based 3D printers, but they have distinct properties and benefits.
PLA is more commonly used by hobbyists due to its lower heat resistance and being derived from plants, making it more environmentally friendly and safe to use than ABS.
ABS is a popular choice for rapid prototyping because of its strength, flexibility, and better ability to handle heat and sunlight. However, ABS has a higher toxicity level and requires an enclosed 3D printer for safety.
Additionally, ABS needs high temperatures during printing to prevent warping and buckling.
It is important to consider the properties, similarities, and differences between the two materials, as well as the appropriate settings and care for the filament you choose.