A 3D printer without material is like a car without gas or batteries: It doesn’t move forward. Or to put it another way, you can’t have one without the other. Since additive manufacturing can be used for so many different applications, it is not surprising that the importance and availability of new 3D printing materials has increased significantly in recent years.

While the number of available materials for 3D printers is still quite limited compared to those available for conventional manufacturing processes, their number is increasing almost daily – from various plastics and metals to sand, ceramics and concrete. The interaction between 3D printer and material is crucial, both for the future of 3D printing and for the quality and reliability of the components produced. What materials can be used in 3D printing processes today and where is the journey heading? Here we give you an overview of the classic materials for 3D printing including some exotic approaches.

What materials does a 3D printer use?

Which material can be processed with which 3D printer is closely linked to the respective application. If a component has to withstand mechanical loads, metal is suitable. If weight savings are required, plastics are ideal. For house construction, concrete is usually the material of choice. Indirect 3D printing processes, like metal casting, for example, work with materials such as sand, ceramics and plastics. Just as the applications of 3D printing materials vary, so do their appearances depending on the processing technology. Some 3D printers process powders, others filaments, while others still require liquid materials. But first things first: Let’s take a closer look at the list of materials used for 3D printing.

Plastics for 3D printing

Plastics claim the lion’s share of the most widely used 3D printing materials. According to Wohlers Associates, one of the leading additive manufacturing consultancies, plastics account for around 53% of all materials available for 3D printing (see Wohlers Report 2022). This includes, on the one hand, polymers that are processed in powder form or as filaments and, on the other hand, liquid photopolymers. Plastics are among the oldest and best-developed materials for 3D printers.

The first additive manufacturing technologies, Selective Laser Sintering, Stereolithography and Fused Deposition Modeling, are among the founding technologies – all of which originally produced plastic-based 3D printing products only. Only later did 3D printers for new materials such as metal or ceramics follow. Accordingly, many different polymer materials can already be found on the market today – with an upward trend. In 2017, there were around 500 plastics for additive manufacturing processes. By 2021, the number has tripled with more than 1,500 plastic-based 3D printing materials (see Wohlers Report 2022). We would like to take a closer look at a few selected materials that can also be processed with the voxeljet High Speed Sintering process.

What are the most common plastic materials for 3D printing?

PA12

PA12 - Polyamide 12, also known as nylon, is the standard material for additive manufacturing. It is compatible with virtually any 3D printing technology and is characterized by high reproducibility and dimensional accuracy.

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PP

PP - Polypropylene is one of the most processed plastics in the world. With properties such as high dynamic load-bearing capacity and chemical resistance, PP has a wide range of applications in a wide variety of industries.

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TPU

TPU - Thermoplastic polyurethane is an elastomer that can be used to manufacture flexible 3D printed products. As a 3D printing material, TPU is used in particular in the production of shoe soles, cushions, seals or damping materials.

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PEBA

PEBA - Similar to TPU, polyether block amide is a thermoplastic elastomer for the additive manufacturing of flexible parts. Thanks to its very good long-term load resistance, PEBA is also very popular in the footwear and upholstery industry.

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Metals for 3D printing

Metals occupy second place among 3D printing materials. Around 36% of all available and additively processable materials are of metallic origin. From aluminum, cobalt and copper to various steel alloys and titanium. The most established additive manufacturing processes for metals are Selective Laser Melting and Binder Jetting. These technologies can achieve very complex components with densities of up to 99%. As a popular material for 3D printers, metal is gaining more and more market share and is also considered one of the most future-proof additively manufactured materials. This is especially true for the automotive and aerospace industries where metal 3D printing is widely used.

What other materials can be used for 3D printing?

With a total of 89%, plastics and metals make up the majority of the materials used for 3D printing. However, there are many other printing materials with different properties and applications. We would like to briefly discuss three of these materials, which can also be processed with the voxeljet binder jetting technology.

Sand

Sand, in particular, is used for the additive manufacturing of molds and models for the metal casting industry. However, it can also be used to 3D print formwork elements for concrete casting or tools for laminating or thermoforming.

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Ceremics

Similar to sand, various high-performance ceramics can also be processed with additive manufacturing technologies. This material is also used by us here at voxeljet. We use it for the 3D printing of cores for investment casting, catalysts or bioactive ceramic structures, for example.

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Concrete

Concrete is a material for 3D printers that has recently been making waves, especially in the area of architecture. For example, entire houses can be 3D printed in one piece. Although we do not 3D print concrete ourselves, we do offer the 3D printing of formwork for concrete casting.

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What materials could be used for 3D printing in the future?

The potential of 3D printing materials is far from exhausted. New materials for various 3D printing technologies are coming onto the market almost daily. These include new plastics, metals and special alloys. A major hurdle to qualifying new materials is the limitations of each technology. For example, to become an additively manufactured material with a layered bond, some materials such as plastics and metals, require very high temperatures that machines cannot yet reach.

One form of materials for 3D printing that will become increasingly important in the future is composite materials. This refers to a material that actually consists of two materials. To some extent, composites are already being processed using 3D printing technologies. For example, carbon fiber-reinforced plastic filaments are available for the FDM process. The great advantage of these 3D printing materials is that they can be used to produce very lightweight, but at the same time stable and strong components. They are therefore particularly suitable for the topology optimization of components.

What are the exceptional materials for 3D printing?

Depending on the technology and application, a wide variety of other materials can be 3D printed. The decisive factor in this context is always the application. Even glass, chocolate or wood can be printed, but the markets for these 3D printing materials are relatively small. Of course, this does not make the variety and printing possibilities of such exotics any less impressive.

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