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ABS & PLA Explained in a Nutshell

PLA (PolyLactic Acid) is a biopolymer, i.e., a biodegradable plastic. It is made from


renewable raw materials such as cornstarch or sugarcane. Aside from 3D printing, it is
typically used for packaging material, plastic wrap, plastic cups and plastic water
bottles. It is considered to be more ecologically friendly than ABS after all, its made
from plants.
ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene
Butadiene Styrene) is an oil
oil-based
based plastic. It is a tough material that
can be used to create robust plastic objects for everyday use, for example in cars,
electrical equipment or even in the popular Lego bricks.

ABS/PLA: Thermal properties

What do the technical terms in the diagram mean?

The melt volume index (or melt flow index) is a measure of the ease of flow of
the melt of the polymer. It is measured as the amount of material flowing in 10
minutes through a capillary of a defined diameter and length.

The glass transition temperature (or glass point) is the point at which a hard
and brittle (glassy) material transitions into a molten or rubber-like state when
the temperature is increased. This value matters when you print something you
plan to pour hot water or beverages in: When you print a coffee mug using PLA,
the bottom sags when you pour in coffee that is hotter than 60C. Why ABS is no
good idea either: See the Recommended fields of application section below.

The slumping temperature indicates the heat resistance limit: At temperatures


above this value, the object will be distorted. When your printer has a heated
bed, the heated bed temperature must be below the slumping temperature;
otherwise, the object will deform.

The melting temperature (or melting point) is obviously the temperature at


which the material starts melting.

The 3D printing temperature is usually higher than the melting point as you
want the filament to be molten (and not just starting to melt) when pressing it
through the printer nozzle.

ABS/PLA: Mechanical and physical properties


PLA is more brittle and has a higher surface hardness. It is more prone to break when
bent. Objects made from this material can be cut, filed, sanded, painted, and bonded
using adhesives; treating them with acetone (for improving surface smoothness) is not
possible.

This

3D

printed key is made of ABS it is strong enough to open handcuffs (image: ABSPlastic.eu)

When printed at the temperature recommended by the filament producer, ABS exhibits
a superior layer bond. Objects 3D printed this way will be stronger and more impactresistant. Therefore, it is better suited for mechanical parts and for objects that need to
be weatherproof. Moreover, ABS parts are more flexible than PLA parts and tend to
bend rather than break when under pressure. Also, ABS is better malleable,
postprocessing is easier: The printed object can be cut, filed, sanded, painted, and
bonded. And they can be treated with acetone to get a smooth and shiny surface or to
weld two objects together.

ABS/PLA: Ease of printing


Overall, PLA is better suited for 3D printing beginners. ABS is more susceptible to
typical 3D printing problems such as warping (i.e., the first layers cool down quicker and

shrink, which causes the lower parts of the model to bend up at the edges). Printing
ABS requires a bit of experimenting to find out the optimal settings.
PLA is more prone to clogging or jamming the printer nozzle: It is more sticky and
expands more when melting. We recommend you painstakingly follow the printer
manufacturers directions to avoid clogging the nozzle. There is almost no shrinkage
when the printed layers cool down so, warping and cracking layers are not an issue,
the printed object can be removed more easily from the print bed than when using ABS.
A heated bed is not required (but can improve print quality if used correctly), enclosing
the printer is not required either (but again: the results will be better). To improve
print bed adhesion we recommend covering the print bed with masking tape (also
known as painters tape).

ABS is more prone to warping than PLA.

ABS is printed at higher temperatures than PLA, which greatly reduces the danger of
clogging or jamming the nozzle. Moreover, it requires less pressure when feeding the
filament to the nozzle. As ABS tends to shrink when cooling, the printed parts may
exhibit warping, and layers may crack or split (especially in high objects). To avoid this,

using a heated bed is a must; an enclosed case improves print quality as it protects the
printed object from breezes. Stringing and large retractions are usually no problem.
Adhesion to the print bed is weaker than when using PLA this can result in a number
of printing problems. To improve bed adhesion, we recommend covering the print bed
with Kapton tape. That is twice as expensive as masking tape but stands temperatures
up to 400C. Alternatively, you can apply hairspray to the print bed before starting a print
job.

ABS/PLA: Storage
Both materials (PLA/ABS) tend to absorb moisture from the air. To prevent that, the
filament rolls are sealed when sold. Filament producers recommend to use up opened
filament rolls rather sooner than later otherwise, the print quality may suffer. We
recommend storing filament rolls in a dry place.
When PLA is exposed to air for a longer time, you may notice bubbles and spurts at the
printer nozzle during printing. This may clog the nozzle and reduce the surface quality of
the printed object. It may also suffer from discoloration. Though humid PLA can be dried
using warm air, the heating may alter the crystallinity ratio in it and change the thermal
properties of the filament which will impact the printing temperature.
When printing slightly humid ABS, there may also be bubbles and spurts at the nozzle.
Usually, there is no discoloration. Drying it with hot (but not too hot) air, e.g. using a
food dehydrator normally does not impact the thermal properties of the filament.

ABS/PLA: Fumes and smell


When printing polymer filaments (PLA/ABS), you will notice some smell. That depends
on the material used and the printing temperature.
PLA smells somewhat sweet, like waffles or candy when heated.
ABS, when heated, gives off a bad plastic smell. Some people report headaches and
nausea from 3D printing. We recommend proper ventilation in enclosed areas.

ABS/PLA: Degradability and durability


PLA is biodegradable after all, it is made from plant material. As it needs some heat to
degrade, you can put it in the city compost but is not recommended to put it in your
backyard compost.
ABS is not biodegradable but can be easily recycled.
Over time, both materials (PLA/ABS) degrade under sunlight or moisture. ABS is more
stable and resistant to chemicals than PLA, however.

ABS/PLA: Choice
Both filaments can be bought in a wide variety of colors; there are even translucent
filaments. Some special filaments are only available as a mix of PLA and other
materials (usually milled), e.g. wood, bamboo or metal fill (brass, copper, bronze). Dutch
filament producer ColorFabb has a fine selection of special filaments.

Bamboofill filament from ColorFabb contains 80% PLA and 20% recycled bamboo fibres (image:
ColorFabb)

ABS/PLA: Prices
Prices for the prices of both filaments are more or less identical. Special filaments, e.g.
PLA filaments mixed with wood or other materials, are more expensive.

Check PLA filament price:

Check ABS filament price:

ABS/PLA: Recommended fields of application


PLA is widely used in 3D printing, e.g. for household items, gadgets, and toys. It is
better suited when flexibility is not your major requirement as it is more prone than ABS
to break under pressure. On the other hand, it is biocompatible with the human body
and can be used for objects that are worn on the skin.
Due to its relatively low glass point, PLA is unsuitable for objects tthat
hat are subject to
heat: When exposed to 60C or more for some time, it loses its shape. You wouldnt use
PLA for objects that are exposed to direct sunlight for a prolonged time or that are
placed in a car. It is also not suitable for kitchen equipment th
that
at is put into the
dishwasher (at least not for dishwasher programs at 60C or more).
ABS is better suited for objects that need to withstand rough usage, hot environments,
that need to be weather-proof,
proof, that may be dropped or have to be bendable. It can be
b
used for parts that are subject to mechanical stress, for interlocking parts or pin-joints.
pin
ABS is not considered to be a food
food-safe
safe material: Especially when the material gets in
contact with hot liquids or warm food, chemicals from the plastic will leach
leac out into the
liquid or food over time. To seal the surface, you need to post
post-process
process it using solvent
polishing or painting that is food
food-save.

ABS is better suited for interlocking pieces such as these cogwheels (image: Michail Nowa via Pixabay)