How Long Do PLA 3D Printed Parts Last?
I was sitting here with my 3D printer thinking, just how long do 3D printed parts last? You print so many 3D models over time so I’m sure many of you have wondered the same question. I’ve put together some important details to answer this question so keep reading to find out.
How Long Do 3D Printed Parts Last? 3D printed parts effectively last centuries and won’t break down under normal conditions, but they will become weaker over time. Household products are made of the same plastic and those will last a very long time. 3D printed parts only degrade under specific harsh conditions, parts designed with strength last longer.
Different materials have different properties that make them last longer than others so it’s important to know which is which. In the rest of this article you’ll learn which materials are more resilient and last longer over time, as well as moisture and sun exposure effects on filament.
How Long Do PLA 3D Printed Parts Last?
Some 3D printed materials definitely have a longer shelf-life than others so I will describe how long 3D printer parts generally last for the most common filaments out there.
In normal indoor settings, PLA isn’t going to break down on the inside unless it’s exposed to moisture, force, heat, or sunlight so it is a very resilient plastic.
Plastics go through a high temperature commercial process to truly be disposed of, and these can take anywhere from 45-90 days. In a backyard compost bin, PLA could last 15 years before it actually degrades.
3D printed parts are going to have a hard time trying to last in certain settings where functionality is it’s main goal.
I will assume you want to know how long 3D printed parts last when under functional use such as a handle, holder, or phone case. Let’s get into some different materials and their functional time spans.
Materials should not be exposed to prolonged temperatures over short periods of time:
- 70 °C (158 °F) for basic Co-Polymers
- 85 °C (185 °F) for ABS
- 100 °C (212 °F) for enhanced Co-Polymers
- 105 °C (221 °F) for Polypropylene (PP)
- 110 °C (230 °F) for Polycarbonate (PC)
Due to being made from a biodegradable material it means over a long period of time, PLA is going to slowly degrade. This process, however, can take a very long time, to a point where it won’t have much impact on its functionality.
There are factors that make PLA decay faster such as heat, UV rays, humidity etc. In normal settings of just being in a cupboard or an aesthetic piece in your bedroom, PLA will take at least 15 years to break down. There are several conditions that have to be in place for PLA to properly degrade.
After several years of room pressure, temperature and other factors, PLA will become a more brittle, weak and easy to break, but it largely depends on how strong the part was printed. Later in this article I’ll talk about how to make 3D parts last longer.
Realistically, PLA is going to last decades but after breaking down, it might not ‘last’ in a functional environment such as a pipe, handle, a TV stand and so on.
This 3D printed clamp below made from white PLA is an example of something you might want to print with another material. With light use, it should be fine over time, but a stronger, more durable material should last longer and be more functional.
Even though this is the case, I wouldn’t advise printing PLA for something you want to hold up for a very long time such as a long-term gift of sorts or something along those lines.
ABS is a lot more durable, functionally than PLA but it is harder to print with so not as popular. ABS has great temperature resistance and more shatter resistance so it should last longer than PLA.
PLA+ was a game-changer in the fact that it kept it’s easy to print properties, while gaining substantially more durable properties than standard PLA. Many people describe it as an ‘easy to print’ ABS and because of its extra durability, it does last longer than PLA.
But how much longer does PLA+ last?
It’s hard to put a timeframe on how much longer PLA+ lasts but we can guess around 20% longer based on 3D printing strength tests and other tests done by people.
The first thing to note is there are several filament manufacturers who have a wide range of quality so some are low quality and some high. If you want your parts to last the longest, make sure they are high quality.
Nylon also has great temperature resistance so if you wanted to 3D print an object that was going to be used in a car, it would be a great material to print with.
TPU is a more rubber-like material so it has characteristics which doesn’t make it become brittle or prone to breaking, but it can become stretched over time. Under normal conditions, TPU will last several decades without a lot of force.
I’ve written an extensive guide to 3D Printer Filament Materials where you can get a good amount of insight about filaments.
How Do I Make 3D Printed Parts Last Longer?
The video above by Maker Muse lists out some great tips on how to make your 3D print parts stronger:
- Increase Infill Percentage
- Use a Stronger Infill Pattern
- Increase Layer Height
- Increase Extrusion Width
- Increase Print Temperature
You’ll have to balance how strong you want your 3D printed part to be and the time taken to actually print the part. A mixture of infill, shell, layer and extrusion settings can have a positive effect on how long your parts last.
Using Higher Quality Material
As previously mentioned, manufacturers that create higher quality filament will make a world of difference in how long your 3D printed parts last. Make sure you go for a filament brand that has a solid track record and plenty of happy customers, so you know they are one of the better filaments out there.
Put Printed Parts in the Optimal Environment
You mainly want to avoid humid environments, sunlight and heat for your 3D printed parts. Plastic is pretty durable in general so you should have too much of an issue making prints last.
Does 3D Printer Filament Expire?
3D printer filament doesn’t necessarily expire but it can be weakened when not kept in the right conditions, but these negative effects can sometimes be corrected depending on what is affecting your filament.
The reason 3D filament manufacturers store their filament in such specific conditions, being in a vacuum-sealed bag, is because it preserves the filament and its characteristics.
If they had left the filament in a bag that allows air inside, it wouldn’t last as long because oxygen slowly breaks filament down and makes it more brittle.
Can You Leave 3D Printed Parts in the Sun?
Exposure to the sun and its ultraviolet rays is known to have negative effects on the structural integrity of 3D printed parts. Some parts have more protection against these UV rays but a lot of them will be broken down by it.
The color of your filament will also have an effect here because black filament will absorb the heat, while white filament will reflect the heat, making it more protected to the sunlight.
It’s not just the sunlight directly that affects your 3D printed parts but the temperature increase. Some filament is not very resilient to high temperatures, PLA being one of them.
You’ll be able to tell which filament is more heat-resistant by the ones that require high printing temperatures.
It’s important to be able to distinguish which 3D printed parts will become damaged with constant sunlight exposure. Some parts that you are widely using today are constantly in the sun and don’t break down. A good example is parts used in a car, a bicycle or even in your phone case.
Can 3D Printed Parts Last Outside or in Water?
There is a descriptive term out there called hygroscopic which refers to a materials’ ability to absorb water. Parts which are highly hygroscopic won’t have the best time when air is humid, let alone being submerged in water of any kind.
PLA, the most common 3D printed material is very hygroscopic so it’s not advised to use PLA in a bathroom or any other setting which has high humidity. What happens when PLA absorbs water over time is it’s structural integrity weakens and it becomes brittle.
It’s more so a problem when it comes to the 3D printing process because when filament is exposed to moisture saturation, it won’t melt evenly and may even give bubbles. Once your part is actually printed, you won’t have as many issues.
All filaments are hygroscopic to a degree, but some more than others.
If you are using PLA in a functional fashion, where it is exposed to mechanical force, it can deteriorate and break over time.
This is why when you are working on projects, you need to take these things into account to come out successful. I’m sure there are some people who didn’t take this important information into account and have experienced the consequences of this.
So to answer the question, some 3D printed materials which aren’t very hygroscopic can last outside, with rain or even in water because they have protective measures that don’t absorb water into their chemical structure.
Many people have used PLA for plant pots which is under constant conditions of humidity and pressure but they still stand the test of time after years. If your parts are created with strong structure, you can avoid decomposition of your material.
I’ve definitely heard of PLA shower handles and toothbrush holders, so it may not be as damaging as it first seems. Tests have been done where people submerge PLA objects in a jar of water for a year and surprisingly, they didn’t show any signs of degradation.
How Long Does it Take for PLA to Biodegrade?
PLA isn’t a new material that has come about from 3D printing. It is quite a well-known material and has been used for several years before manufacturers made it into specialized filament for 3D printers to create objects.
The known information about PLA is, it does degrade but it takes many decades in optimal conditions to be able to degrade.
If a PLA printed part is left in a non-humid environment with no sunlight and no mechanical force, it will almost certainly last centuries. The way PLA biodegrades is through a specific process where secondary chemicals are made to react to PLA and break it down structurally.
So, technically speaking, PLA doesn’t biodegrade, at least naturally but only when exposed to very high temperatures and chemical breakdowns.