PLA & ABS are the two most common materials in 3D printing, so I wondered, what are the differences and which one is worth buying?
If you want a cheap material that doesn’t need a lot of strength, PLA is a great choice for you to use, because it is the safest and easiest 3D printing material to print with. ABS is used for objects that are functional, need higher heat-resistance and more strength, but it is harder to print with.
In the rest of this article, I’ll go into some details about these differences and help to figure out when to buy either PLA or ABS.
PLA – What are the Basics?
PLA (Polylactic Acid) is the most popular and the default option when it comes to 3D printing. It is very cheap and easily available in the market. Hence, if you want to prototype anything, then this is the suitable material.
It is a thermoplastic which can be printed in lower temperatures within a range of 180-220°C. Unlike other materials, PLA can produce good adhesion without a heated bed surface, but most people opt-in to use a heated bed for increased adhesion, especially for bigger prints.
Another benefit of PLA over other materials is that it is eco-friendly and biodegradable. This is due to the fact that it is made from the by-products of natural substances like starch of corn and sugar cane. Some people have even reported a sweet aroma when printing certain brands of PLA.
Objects Made From PLA
For the most part, you can print any shapes with these materials so almost any objects are printable! There are filaments which are better suited for certain uses though.
- Single-use cutlery
- Phone holders
- Thousands of 3D benchys
ABS – What are the Basics?
ABS has a long history in the industrial world, even before its application in 3D printing. ABS also known as Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene is also a thermoplastic material, but one that possesses great mechanical strength and rigidity when it comes to 3D printing.
This material is the best economical option if you want to build a strong, functional 3D print. The print models also have good impact and wear-resistance. The temperature requirement for printing ABS is within a range of 220-250°C.
It’s important to note that as a material, you’ll see ABS in all types of places but it’s slightly different to 3D printer ABS filament, which is specially formulated for 3D printing. It has specific characteristics like lower shrinkage, less odor and increased layer adhesion.
It also needs a print bed temperature between 50-100°C for better adhesion.
Objects Made From ABS
- Protective headgear
- Computer components
- Musical instruments
- Auto body parts
- Small home appliances
- Medical supplies
Differences Between PLA & ABS
Which One Wins Best Quality – PLA or ABS?
When it comes to quality, PLA dominates over ABS for the most part. PLA has a glossy and smooth finish while ABS has a nice matte finish, but only if you really dial-in the settings perfectly. Layers are visible in ABS prints, but PLA can be printed with thinner lines and very fine detail.
However, in post-process, ABS can be treated easily to produce a fine surface compared to PLA. You can produce a fine surface finish with ABS when treated with acetone. PLA is better processed with sanding and using after-print products such as Smooth-On XTC-3D High Performance Coating.
I actually made a pretty cool article about finishing your PLA & ABS 3D prints nicely.
If you want to print moving parts, PLA works out better than ABS, same if you want to print parts faster.
Differences in Strength Between PLA & ABS
ABS dominates over PLA when it comes to strength and this makes it a suitable material for printing functional parts. In the case of PLA, it is not advised to print functional parts as it lacks strength and flexibility for this purpose.
There are definitely cases where you can use PLA for functional parts, but ones which doesn’t have a large weight or load-bearing. A handle of some sort or a spool holders would be a good use of PLA.
The main reason for the demand of ABS in the 3D printing market is due to its strength and dimensional stability. You’re just getting a stronger filament overall which translates to ideally using it for load-bearing parts.
When first looking at the 3D printing field, most people would have wondered just how strong these 3D printed parts were, so it’s an important factor.
You likely wouldn’t have got into 3D printing if the parts were weak and fell apart at the slightest bit of pressure.
Regardless of this difference in strength, there are many other ways to make your prints stronger, from differences in settings to annealing your parts.
Is PLA or ABS More Flexible?
When it comes to flexibility, ABS is more flexible than PLA because it has more give. PLA is much less flexible and rigid than ABS and it suffers from the downside of getting brittle under certain conditions. When PLA is affected by heat, sunlight and moisture, that element of flexibility lowers even further.
You don’t want a PLA part that is exposed to these environments if you are expecting a flexible part to work effectively. ABS has the ability to snap back a lot better than PLA, so it’s used in many applications like a car bumper or protective headgear.
Which has the Better Price, PLA or ABS?
When it comes to pricing, PLA is generally a little more economical and cheaper compared to ABS. ABS on the other hand is slightly more costly due to all the properties it comes with, but in recent times the gap between the prices has fallen significantly.
Don’t be surprised if you find some spools of ABS actually cheaper than PLA>
The process of creating PLA is easier than ABS so there is a higher supply of it. The supply & demand of PLA just so happens to not outweigh ABS as much, which makes the price a little cheaper usually.
Do keep in mind, there are several brands of PLA and ABS which have wide price differences, so expect some ABS filament to actually be cheaper than some PLA filament.
Higher quality filament or composite filament (filament mixed with another material) will be more expensive than the standard quality filament that you can get.
One of the cheapest, highly rated PLA filament on Amazon I could find is the CC3D Silky PLA. Not only is it cheap, but it is at time of writing, the #2 Amazon’s Best Seller in 3D Printing Filament.
It can take a little bit of tuning with a temperature tower and speed tower, but once tuned up you can get some amazing looking prints. CC3D PLA handles supports really well and has a lovely looking finish.
One of the cheapest, highly rated ABS filament on Amazon is HATCHBOX ABS Filament. It actually comes out at roughly the same price as PLA which isn’t too surprisingly. It has a dimensional accuracy of 0.03mm and has a 30 day money back guarantee for peace of mind.
ABS & PLA’s Availability of Colors
Manufacturers have gotten a lot better at giving consumers color choices, and it only gets wider as time goes on. You won’t have many problems finding a color or specific shade of color with PLA, but with ABS there is a little less availability.
Try searching for ABS filament on Google, you won’t get very many results, if any at all. PLA on the other hand, will you plenty of options for a smooth rainbow filament to print at your hearts content!
Check out the TTYT3D Silk Rainbow PLA Filament on Amazon now.
As previously mentioned, PLA is just more popular than ABS so it has a lot more attention and creativity in the manufacturing space.
Also, the manufacturing process itself makes it easier to experiment with different properties and composites, so it makes sense that PLA will have more availability overall.
Temperature Resistance Difference Between PLA & ABS
When it comes to temperature resistance, ABS plastic has a higher glass transition temperature than PLA. This means that ABS can hold its structural integrity at much higher temperature compared to PLA and not melt into a liquid-like substance.
ABS has a glass transition of 100°C and melting temperature of 220°C. HATCHBOX ABS prints at 210°C – 240°C.
PLA has a glass transition of 50°C and melting temperature of 180°C. TECBEARS PLA, a highly-rated premium PLA prints at 180°C – 220°C.
If you have a project which requires the part to be outside in the sun for some period of time, PLA might not hold up so well. You would want to use ABS in these cases so it has better protection against heat.
Differences in Storage
When it comes to storing, PLA is prone to weathering compared to ABS. PLA absorbs moisture in the atmosphere and starts to lose its mechanical properties including flexibility and rigidity. Over time, it starts to become brittle and breaks.
Although ABS has more resistance I wouldn’t say there is much difference in storage if you want the best quality.
It’s a good idea to store PLA filament in some kind of air tight container when not in use.
ABS is made to with stand a lot of weathering for a long period of time, but it can still be affected by moisture.
A good storage container that is highly reviewed and works well is the IRIS Weathertight Storage Box (Clear).
It holds plenty of filament with no air leakage to keep your 3D prints optimally stored. It has a rubber seal and keeps your filament dry as long as the latches are secure.
You can hold over 10 spools of filament a 62 Quart storage container, which is more than enough for most 3D printer users, but you can choose a lower size if you wish.
WiseDry 5lbs Reusable Silica Gel Beads is a no-brainer. It has 10 drawstring bags and color indicating beads that go from orange to dark green when they are at their capacity. Simply dry the used beads in the microwave or oven. Also great customer service!
It’s a good idea to also measure humidity, I use the Habor Hygrometer Humidity Gauge, it’s pocket size, has readings that are very accurate and is a lot cheaper than other models.
If you want a more professional version, the Polymaker Polybox Edition II Storage Box is a premium option for the serious 3D printer hobbyists out there. With this amazing storage box people can keep filaments dry during the printing process.
- Built-in Thermo-Hygrometer – monitors humidity and temperature inside the actual storage box
- Carries two 1KG spools simultaneously, perfect for dual extrusion or carries one 3KG spool
- Has two sealed off bays which carry desiccants bags or loose beads to absorb moisture
Ease of Printing
It is very easy to print PLA as its temperature requirements are significantly low compared to ABS plastic.
PLA can be printed properly even with no print bed temperature. In the case of ABS it requires a significantly high print bed temperature (around 95-110°C) for good adhesion to the print platform.
Another main advantage when it comes to printing with PLA is that it can be printed quickly due to its low viscosity (rate of flow of a fluid) when heated compared to ABS. This also means that PLA is less prone to clogging and blocking of print head compared to ABS.
Which One Should I Buy – PLA or ABS?
The answer to this question completely depends on your requirements.
If you want a material for making models for visualization, then PLA is the best option. If you are intending to make functional and more mechanically stable parts, then you should use ABS.
The ABS I would recommend you getting, for multiple reasons is the eSUN ABS+ Filament. It comes vacuum-sealed with dessicant to keep it dry and a dimensional accuracy of ±0.05mm.
The advantages of this filament are:
- Much less warp than ABS (typical ABS has over 0.8% shrinkage rate while ABS+ is less than 0.4%)
- High rigidity
- Much better layer bonding and details
The downside of this filament is:
- It’s not fully dissolable in acetone, so for acetone post-processing you should use regular ABS. They have their regular eSUN ABS which also has less warping.
For prototyping and normal 3D printing, the best economical option is PLA.
The PLA I would recommend you getting is the SUNLU Silk PLA Filament. It has plenty of positive ratings with many happy customers who purchased it. You’ll get minimal warping, little to no odor along with a 30-day money back guarantee.
It has a 100% tangle-free and 100% bubble-free charateristics along with a dimensional accuracy of ±0.02mm.
What Do Other People Say About PLA vs ABS?
The customers opinions on PLA and ABS vary on the properties they are looking. Many customers are a huge fan of PLA for getting started in 3D printing and for making prototypes.
Customers who wanted a material that is function and can withstand harsh conditions opted for ABS. When it comes to vibrant looks, customers loved the wide range color choices that was provided by ABS.
The ease of using of PLA proved to be far more superior compared to ABS among customers. ABS users often ran with issues of extrusion, warping etc. when the settings provided were inadequate for printing.
Another problem faced by the customers was the pungent smell produced while printing ABS, but if you have a good ventiliation system you can avoid this.