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Everything you need to know about PLA 3D Printing

Before you get started with PLA 3D Printing, we’ve compiled some of the basic information you’ll need to know. Read on to learn the advantages, disadvantages, history and applications of PLA 3D printing

PLA filament spool with 3D printed handheld scanner prototype
PLA filament spool with 3D printed handheld scanner prototype

When it comes to desktop 3D printing, one material is synonymous with the mass adoption by hobbyists and educators, as well as professionals who are just getting started. That material is PLA and its acclaim comes in large part from its ease of use when compared to other materials

Through this article, we intend to share everything you should know about printing with PLA, the most widely used 3D printing material. On account of its benefits, PLA is considered a favorite choice for many hobbyists, enthusiasts, and students. 

UNDERSTANDING PLA AS A MATERIAL

Polylactic Acid or PLA was discovered by the scientist Wallace Corothers in the 1920s. However, serious applications for PLA didn’t arrive until the 1960s when it was used as a material for tissue replacement. It then gradually found recognition and gained usage in many modern applications. 

Chemical Composition

PLA is a biodegradable thermoplastic polymer obtained from resources like corn starch, or sugarcane. PLA holds the distinction of being the highest consumed bioplastic in the world. 

Its bio-degrading property is very much desirable in many products such as disposable cups, glasses, bottles, tea bags, and mulch films. But this property also limits its use in engineering applications as it is not suitable for long-term usage. 

Other notable advantages of PLA include its low energy consumption during production, it generates around 68% fewer greenhouse gases and it does not emit toxic fumes. 

In terms of its properties, PLA is stable and can produce consistent performance over a long duration. It is extremely robust for in-system applications and showcases characteristics similar to polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), or polystyrene (PS). 

Is PLA Food Safe?

Since PLA is manufactured from biodegradable materials, it is generally considered as food safe. But it is important to note that the material moves through an injection molding machine during its production cycle, and if the same machine is used for any other material then it cannot be considered as a purely food-safe material. 

In the case of 3D printing, if the raw material is considered food-safe but flows through a brass nozzle during the printing process, the material becomes contaminated. 

So, it is better to be skeptical about its food safety and take necessary precautions if the material is to be used for products that come in direct contact with food. 

compostable-pla-cold-cup-lg-CC16

Biodegradeable PLA plastic cup
Source: Green Paper Products

PLA 3D PRINTING

Since PLA is manufactured from biodegradable materials, it is generally considered as food safe. But it is important to note that the material moves through an injection molding machine during its production cycle, and if the same machine is used for any other material then it cannot be considered as a purely food-safe material. 

In the case of 3D printing, if the raw material is considered food-safe but flows through a brass nozzle during the printing process, the material becomes contaminated. 

So, it is better to be skeptical about its food safety and take necessary precautions if the material is to be used for products that come in direct contact with food. 

PLA Material Properties

PLA is stiffer than ABS and is a tough material but not as heat-tolerant or chemical resistant as ABS. PLA is a fragile material and needs to be strengthened with additives to improve its mechanical and chemical properties. Filament manufacturers also use additives to enhance its impact and chemical resistance. 

PARAMETER Imperial Metric
Heat Deflection (ASTM 648, 66 psi) 125-120°F 52-49°C
Flexural Modulus (ASTM D790, 15 mm/min) 377,000 psi 2,600 MPa
Tensile Strength at yield (ASTM D638, 50 mm/min) 8,990 psi 62 MPa
Tensile Modulus (ASTM D638, 50 mm/min) 522,000 psi 3,600 MPa
Strain at Yield - Elongation (%) >4.4% >4.4%
Notched Impact Strength (ASTM D256) 0.6 ft-lb/in 32 J/m

Specifications for MakerBot PLA

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MakerBot Method logo white

Popular Composites of PLA

Impact Modified PLA

PLA modifiers can be used to enhance PLA and make it more usable for professional applications. One such example is MakerBot Tough. These modifiers typically improve the durability of PLA - reducing the brittle tendency to fracture on impact. This modification typically maintains the ease of printing.

Wood-fill PLA

PLA material is combined with dust from woods like bamboo, birch, coconut, cork, etc., to form a Wood-fill PLA filament. The typical composition of wood is around 30% but can vary depending on the manufacturer. Examples of wood-fill PLA can be found from manufacturers like Color-Fabb. Such materials, however, can cause clogging in smaller nozzles and have to be used carefully.

Metal-fill PLA

Similar to a wood-fill filament, Metal-fill PLA is manufactured by adding metal particles (30%) with the base PLA material (70%). The composition can vary according to the manufacturer. This filament gives a metallic look-and-feel to PLA. However, metal-fill materials can also cause nozzle clogging and appropriate care should be taken while printing, and the parts can have reduced strength properties.

range-of-materials

Metal-fill prints printed on the
Experimental Extruder for Replicator+

Glow-in-the-Dark

This is a fun material to print with. PLA is mixed with phosphorescent materials to formulate the Glow-in-the-Dark filament. This glowing property of the material can be used for certain specific applications. 

PLA Coffee

Coffee powder is added to the PLA material to give a coffee color and smell to the material. This material is formulated more like a fun material but has no real applications to it.  

ADVANTAGES

Easy to Print: PLA’s ability to heat and cool without shrinking makes it tremendously easy to print when compared to various other materials.

Budget Friendly: 3D printing with PLA is arguably the most cost-effective 

Classroom and Office Friendly: PLA is a nontoxic corn-based, biodegradable material and is considered safe to use in offices and classrooms

Good part stiffness: PLA is stiff meaning that it will maintain its form up until its breaking point which is important in applications such as inspection gauges.

Biodegradable: PLA is a corn-based plastic and will break down over time.

DISADVANTAGES

Catastrophic Failure Under Pressure: While PLA has respectable strength and stiffness characteristics, it has a tendency to be rather brittle and can fracture violently into shards when it reaches its limit.

Hygroscopic: PLA’s tendency to absorb moisture from the air can actually make it difficult to print in high humidity situations.

Low heat-resistance: PLA has a fairly low temperature at which it will begin to warp or soften. This could make it difficult to use for certain testing applications or even in the instance of leaving a part in your car on a hot summer day.

Biodegradable: Depending on what you’re trying to do with your 3D print, the fact that it breaks down over time could be viewed as a negative. If you want to produce a lasting end-use part, 3D printing with PLA might not be the best choice.

WHERE TO BUY?

PLA is a great starting material for all types of users trying to learn how to 3D print. But it is important that PLA comes from a good source so that the material delivers a reliable output every single time. To experience a successful 3D printing experience, we recommend that you use MakerBot PLA for METHOD, Replicator+ and Z18, or SKETCH as it is specially formulated for delivering consistent results.

Looking for a professional 3D printing platform that works with a variety of manufacturing-grade materials? Learn more at makerbot.com/method.