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5 Differences Between PLA or ABS Filament

We’ll see the ways they’re similar as well as the important divergences the two have. This analysis will also help guide you to the suitable material for you and your project.

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In the world of 3D printing, you will often come across both PLA and ABS as commonly used materials for filaments. While both of these materials mimic each other in certain properties, there are still differences between the two.

Here are 5 ways to tell if filament is PLA or ABS:

  1. Required level of heat
  2. Strength and flexibility
  3. Final texture and finish
  4. Typical printed products
  5. Toxicity and risk

In the rest of this article, we’ll take a closer look at the different properties of both of these materials. We’ll see the ways they’re similar as well as the important divergences the two have. This analysis will also help guide you to the suitable material for you and your project.

1. Required Level of Heat

Both PLA and ABS are commonly used in 3D printing to make filament. ABS is the common abbreviation for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene, while PLA stands for Polylactic Acid. While they both are popular choices, they differ in how easy they work during the printing process. When comparing the two, PLA is considered easier to work with than ABS due to the temperatures required to work with the material effectively.

Let’s take a look at the nozzle temperature required of the two materials. You don’t need to get the nozzle as hot in the printing process in order to print with PLA. The typical temperature for PLA printing is around 190 degrees celsius (374 degrees Fahrenheit). 

You’ll need the nozzle to be much hotter to print ABS, around 240 degrees celsius (464 degrees Fahrenheit). This can make it more of a challenge to work with as you significantly increase the amount of heat needed to complete the process.

The same trend continues when it comes to bed temperatures as well. The temperature you’ll need to heat the bed is very important when it comes to ABS printing. ABS is actually at risk for warping and zippering if the bed temperature isn’t properly regulated. 

PLA doesn’t usually suffer from such problems with the printing bed. Working with PLA allows you to print with much less fear of warping your final product. If you spot a final product with severe zippering and cracks, it’s likely made from PLA filament. Because of this, PLA can often give sharper corners and more precise shapes.

This means that you run a higher risk of making a failed print when using ABS filament. Especially if you’re just starting out, PLA will give you a better shot of successful, accurate printing even with tiny details you are looking to print.

For a full explanation on the needed conditions to print with both of these filaments, you can check out the following YouTube video:

2. Strength and Flexibility

While ABS can be more difficult to work with and is more prone to warping and other printing issues, it’s considered a stronger and more flexible material once printing is complete. It’ll take more pressure to break a piece of ABS printed material when compared to PLA. It’ll also have more flexibility than PLA. 

The product created by PLA printing will likely provide all the needed strength and flexibility for someone just getting started. However, the difference in strength and flexibility is usually only relevant at high-level 3D printing. Only when it comes to more professional and commercial uses does ABS give a needed slight advantage.

3. Final Texture and Finish

After printing, both ABS and PLA tend to give off different finishes and textures. However, ABS will give you a matte finish while PLA tends to be glossier. With both materials, you’ll be able to spot the layers made by the printing procedure. 

This usually isn’t the end of the story for the two materials, however. Often manufacturers will use other processes when printing is complete in order to give the product a different look.

PLA tends to be more delicate to work with at this stage. It’s possible to sand it down and process it through machinery, but it does require significant care and caution. A mistake in the sanding could cause the part to break, and the printing will need to be restarted.

It’s easier to work with ABS in this phase because it’s more durable and less prone to breakage. ABS is commonly sanded after printing and can even be drilled and processed using machinery. It can also be made to appear more glossy and lustrous through the use of acetone or other chemicals. 

4. Typical Printed Products

Both ABS and PLA have products that they’ve gained a reputation for printing. ABS, which is an oil-based plastic, is perhaps most famous for its use in printing Legos. It’s also the top choice when printing materials to be used in cars.

On the other hand, PLA has more of a reputation for being a biodegradable, eco-friendly option. It has been commonly used in the medical industry when creating surgical implants. It can also be found in household items like plastic cups, items related to food, and general consumption.

PLA is also designed to break down much faster in order to avoid waste and pollution. If left in water, it should fully biodegrade in four years. If it’s sent to break down in a composter, it should take as little as 50 days. 

ABS won’t naturally biodegrade the way that PLA will. However, it can be recycled and made into another plastic product.  

5. Toxicity and Risk

Another difference between the two is the level of risk involved in the printing process. ABS is known to give off harsher, more toxic fumes while printing. You’ll need specially designed ventilation systems to ensure your health and safety during printing to use this material safely. 

The toxicity difference between the two also contributes to ABS being a more professionally-suited material. Professional, industrial setups are more likely to have the ventilation in place that ABS requires. PLA can be used more safely by beginners since the fumes aren’t as strong and don’t pose the same health risk to the user. 

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About Ben

I started 3D printing since 2013 and have learned a lot since then. Because of this I want to share my knowledge of what I have learned in the past years with the community. Currently I own 2 Bambulab X1 Carbon, Prusa SL1S and a Prusa MK3S+. Hope you learn something from my blog after my years of experience in 3D printing.