Fun with Filament

Filament is the thermoplastic material used in FDM printing. You can get filament in almost any color, a variety of plastics, and even “exotic” blends.

3D Printer Filament


PLA is a plastic that is made from corn. PLA stands for Polylactic Acid and has a lower melting point than the alternative, ABS, which means you can use lower temperatures on your 3D printer when using it. PLA is biodegradable and compostable. In the appropriate conditions, it will break down in about 45-90 days. Another environmental consideration of PLA is that it is can be recycled and, when the right process is used, the purified recycled PLA can be used again with no loss of its original properties.  PLA is our recommended material when working with youth because of its environmental qualities and the lower heat needed.

ResourceSafety assessment of polylactide (PLA) for use as a food-contact polymer


  • Does NOT need a heated print bed
  • Environmentally friendly
  • Smells like syrup when heating
  • Food safe
  • Non-toxic


  • Has a lower melting point so printed objects can deform in high heat
  • Not as strong as ABS


ABS Plastic is the same plastic used to make Legos (but only until 2030). It stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. This plastic was one of the first materials used for desktop 3D printers. It is produced from natural gas and petroleum.

[box]Info: ABS has a tendency to peel up from the print bed as it prints, for this reason you should always use a printer with a heated print bed when using ABS.[/box]


  • Sturdy and hard
  • Withstands heat better, this means a higher temperature is needed when printing but it will hold up to higher heat applications than PLA.


  • More damaging to the environment (made from oil)
  • Smells like melted plastic when printing
  • Requires a heated platform
  • Prints tend to curl at the bottom
  • Not food safe



There are a lot of new materials being created and experimented with for 3D printing. One of the most exciting is flexible filaments. Here is a video discussing one such product called NinjaFlex.

Other Flexible Filaments

There are other flexible filaments such as MatterHackers Soft PLA.

As we gain more experience using these new materials, we will share our thoughts and update this article.


Filament Comparison

In this video, SparkFun demonstrates some of the differences between the filaments they carry.

Video from:

[box]Errata: He mentions that PLA extrudes at 120-130 degrees Celsius, this is incorrect, it’s closer to 180-190 degrees (but higher for best results).[/box]

Filament Size

Filament comes in two main sizes: 1.75mm and 3mm. Most printers will only take one size of filament so make sure you use the right size for your printer. As far as functionality goes, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between the two. Some report that 1.75mm gives you better accuracy and others say that the 3mm flexible filament is much easier to work with than the 1.75mm stuff.

[box]Info: This is a measurement of the filament before it gets melted, it doesn’t have anything to do with the size of the filament that comes out of the hot end.  That is controlled by the size of the hot end nozzle.[/box]


Exotic Blends

We are seeing a fast-growing variety of exotic, or specialty, filaments. These are typically PLA filaments infused with other types of materials like metals, wood, and more. We have experimented with a wide variety of these exotics and they are a lot of fun to work with. Many of them require specific printing adjustments, but most can be used on desktop FDM printers like the Printrbot Simple.

Check out the following links for more information about exotics:


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