Why is PLA filament the most common material for 3D printing? Moreover, why is it good to start with PLA for beginners? In this post, we’ll show you why PLA is ideal for 3D printing.
3d Printing PLA Filament
When beginning 3D printing, it is common to use PLA as your first material. Most 3D printers come with a free PLA filament you can use to test your new 3D Printer. There are several factors why PLA is a good filament to start with, and still a perfect filament to continue 3D printing with. For hobbyists and makers, PLA will do just fine for almost all projects.
Why would you print with PLA as a beginner? Here are several factors to convince you how PLA works perfectly with 3D printing:
Easily Accessible/ Low Cost
You may have lurked around forums or social media groups full of elegant and colorful prints. Most likely, those printed parts were PLA. PLA is the most used filament for its availability in the 3D printing market.
PLA was discovered around the 1920s in search of environmentally-friendly plastic. In this article on the production of PLA, manufacturing the material was expensive then. However, a new production method was discovered in 1989, allowing for a cheaper method to produce PLA. For comparison, the former cost to produce a pound of PLA was $200, but now it is less than $1.
ABS, another 3D printing material most often used, is also a cheap material, however PLA has advantages over it, especially from a maker’s and hobbyist’s perspective.
Every FDM in the market is capable of printing PLA. Not only accessible, PLA can be used with any 3D printer available to you. The requirements in printing this material can be achieved easily, and no primary upgrades will be needed to print it well.
Low Extruding Temperature
First of all, PLA is melted at a relatively low temperature, typically from 190-210 °C. Most 3D printers are designed to print up to 250 °C. With that, PLA can be printed without trouble upgrading your 3D printer.
Sticks on Heated and Non-heated Bed
Speaking of temperature, PLA can be printed on either heated and non-heated beds. Most 3D printers today include a heated bed that can reach a good range of temperature for PLA printing.
Typically, the beds are heated to 60 °C to make it adhere well, close to the glass transition temperature of PLA. As for surface material, almost any can work, with the best ones to be smooth PEI sheets, glass bed, and painter’s tape.
For a non-heated bed, PLA prints successfully on surfaces such as blue painter’s tape or glass surfaces with a thin coat of hair spray or glue stick on it.
Does Not Require an Enclosure
Some plastic materials in the 3D printing world not only require a high range of temperature for them to melt, but also an enclosed area to print successfully. Take note not all 3D printers include enclosures.
Unlike PLA, materials such as ABS need an enclosure to preserve the ambient temperature and prevent drafts. These can cause separation between the printed layers or even warping, ultimately causing the print to be removed from the bed, and therefore a print failure.
Most low-budget and even mid-range printers are an open-frame 3D printer, but PLA won’t be affected by this. Moreover, PLA can even benefit from an open 3D printer as it can allow faster cooling of the printed plastic.
Easy to Set Up
PLA is undoubtedly the easiest 3D printer filament to work with. Unlike other 3D printing materials, PLA can be set up easily. Of course you need to set the right parameters with your slicer, but as for hardware setup, there is not much to do.
Settings-wise, PLA is the easiest to tune up, as it wouldn’t require much attention to some slicer settings that are otherwise critical to other filaments. Basically once your printer is calibrated, you are ready to print PLA.
Cooling, however, is the slicer setting that PLA can benefit with. For this material, the quicker it cools after being extruded, the better. When printing PLA, it is recommended to turn off cooling for the first few layers, then turning it maximum for the rest of the print.
On the other hand, cooling can be an issue to other filaments like ABS. This filament will not require cooling throughout the print, and will need an enclosure to keep the ambient temperature constant.
Color and Material Options
With the accessibility of PLA, manufacturers also create more filament varieties with this plastic. The familiarity of PLA to users makes it the better option for manufacturers to create new filaments by blending PLA with other color and material additives.
Composite filaments are filaments made commonly with a solid powder blended in plastic, usually PLA. Some of these materials are wood varieties, metals such as steel, iron, copper, and brass.
Another reason PLA is a better choice for composite materials is because of its low temperature requirement. If these blended composite materials would be extruded in a higher temperature, there could be a possibility of burning or discoloration of these powders.
Once PLA is cooled enough just after being extruded, it can retain very tiny details. With enough cooling, PLA can hold very fine elements in your print. This is the reason why hobbyists are trying to improve cooling on their 3D printers, evident from the various 3D printable fan ducts available online.
Unlike materials like ABS which tends to warp, or PETG that is prone to stringing, PLA can be easily tuned to create detailed prints. Warping and stringing can be detrimental to detailed prints, and even repairing these through post processing (sanding and painting) can reduce or eliminate these tiny details.
As PLA is made from plant-based starch, there are no toxic substances when it is being melted.
PLA filament does emit a non-hazardous chemical named lactide that is said to be essentially harmless. However, several tests show that all PLA prints also emit micro particles, thus it is still recommended to place your printers in a ventilated area, even printing with PLA only.
Although it is made with organic materials, PLA does not degrade in nature. It requires a special facility to decompose it faster and efficiently. The collection and segregation of PLA can be a problem, however, given its plant-based origins, it does not give off residue even when burnt or placed in landfills.
Even if it is not biodegradable in nature, PLA is still a better plastic than other synthetic materials. The manufacturing of PLA uses less energy as compared to petroleum-based plastics. A peer reviewed assessment shows that the manufacturing of PLA is roughly 75% less carbon footprint against most traditional plastics.
Disadvantages of PLA
PLA, with all its advantages, also shares some drawbacks. The availability of this material is a good thing for people starting with 3D printing, or for projects that do not require exposure to more extreme environments. For more practical projects, other materials like ABS, PETG, Nylon and other plastics may be a better fit.
Low Temperature Resistance
The major disadvantage of PLA is its low glass transition temperature. PLA tends to deform at about 50-60 °C. Although this is far from the average temperature we feel, using PLA in environments like in car interiors, electrical components, and even inside your 3D printer enclosure can be a bad idea.
Strength and Durability
Technically speaking, PLA has higher strength than ABS. In practical applications, however, PLA is the less recommended material for models that require strength because of its brittleness. Meaning, PLA parts break immediately without deformation.
ABS, on the other hand, has better flexibility. With that, it can endure shock load better, and will deform before ultimately breaking. This property can provide more durability, as well as safety for projects that will naturally encounter sudden impacts or heavy loads.
Should You Use PLA?
From a beginners perspective, the benefits of using PLA outweighs its disadvantages. Starting out with an easier filament gives those who are starting in the hobby a better experience as they indulge into 3D printing. Even as 3D as printing develops more materials, PLA is still a widely used material for professionals and long-time hobbyists and tinkerers for its reliability.
With just simpler things to keep in mind, it is easier to learn the hobby starting with PLA filament, and then going through other materials as the need arises.