The world of professional 3D printing offers an abundance of materials. Gone are the days when your options were limited to a few cheap plastics. With recent breakthroughs in professional 3D printing, nylon, stainless steel, carbon fiber, and other advanced materials are in reach. Because 3D printing can create nearly any geometry quickly and easily, this method is often the best choice over traditional fabrication, regardless of the material.

3D printing has more material options than ever before, but it can be hard to decide which material is the best for your project. Whether you’re creating a prototype, tool, or end-use product, choosing the right material is essential. The most common classes of 3D printing materials are plastics, metals, and composites. Plastics are the most popular 3D printing material, but metal and composite 3D printers are on the rise, combining the automation of 3D printing with high-performance materials.

From containers to consumer tech, everyday objects use plastic 3D printing for prototyping and mass production.

Plastic 3D Printing

Plastic 3D printing is the most developed form of 3D printing, and it offers the widest variety of materials. For 3D printing professionals, ABS, polypropylene, Nylon, and high temperature plastics such as polyetherimide are among the most popular. Most plastic 3D printing requires curing and post-processing, but it can still reduce lead times by weeks compared to traditional fabrication.

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS): an all-around popular choice, providing good aesthetics and a balanced spread of mechanical properties. Found in toys, kitchen appliances, telephones, and other everyday products.

Polypropylene (PP): cheap, chemical resistant, and able to form living hinges, yet flammable and degrades with UV light. Household containers, lab equipment, and textiles are made with PP.

Nylon: strong, rigid, and durable, yet expensive and not resistant to strong acids and bases. Commonly found in under-the-hood components and other applications that require high mechanical properties.

Polyetherimide (PEI): 3D printing plastic designed to withstand high heats. This material makes good injection mold tools and heat-resistant components, but it comes with a hefty price tag.

Red Audi sports car outdoors
Top auto companies like Audi depend on metal 3D printing to create prototypes, tools, and end-use parts.

Metal 3D Printing

Right now, there’s a whirlwind of hype around metal 3D printing. The last few years have seen an influx of metal 3D printing companies with technologies like selective laser melting (SLM) and direct metal laser sintering (DMLS). Metals like stainless steel, aluminum, and titanium are engineering standbys with their high strength and durability, and 3D printing is the easiest way to produce them. 3D printed metals require some post-processing, but the labor is minimal compared to traditional fabrication.

Stainless steel is found in every industry, from architecture to medicine. Kitchen tools, surgical instruments, and car components are all made of this versatile, durable material. With 3D printing, these products can be made cheaply and easily, replacing manual labor with speed and automation.

Lightweight and malleable, aluminum is one of the most popular metals. Laptops, airplanes, and food packaging are just a few of the products that are made of aluminum. 3D printing has replaced traditional machining for many aluminum applications.

Titanium is on the expensive side, but it boasts the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any metal. It’s hard, tough, biocompatible, and resists fatigue. Despite titanium’s benefits, its high cost limits it to specialized applications like high-end automotive parts and surgical implants.

Carbon fiber drone flying near snowy mountains
Composites such as carbon fiber are used to reduce the mass of drones because of their high strength-to-weight ratio.

Composite 3D Printing

Recent breakthroughs in composite 3D printing have made it easier than ever to create composite parts. Composites are made of a reinforcement (such as carbon fiber) and a matrix (such as a polymer) to combine the benefits of both. Composites offer improved mechanical properties over traditional materials. In the past, engineers who wanted the benefits of composites had to undergo a time-consuming and difficult lay-up fabrication process. With composite 3D printing, you can have a high-performance part in hand within hours instead of weeks. Magnetic 3D printing leverages FEA software input to optimize the a part for its application voxel-by-voxel, giving engineers full control over their materials.

Carbon fiber boasts a better strength-to-weight ratio than any metal. It’s used to make products stronger, stiffer, and more lightweight. Carbon fiber makes aircraft, cars, and bikes faster and more efficient.

Fiberglass offers the benefits of composites at a low cost. It adds a high stiffness-to-weight ratio to boat hulls, wind turbines, and circuit boards. Affordable and versatile, fiberglass makes high performance accessible across industries.

Each year, professional 3D printing becomes more advanced. The 3D printing industry as a whole is shifting away from the consumer space and toward professional and industrial 3D printing, creating prototypes, tools, and end-use products across industries. For many manufacturers, 3D printing has replaced traditional fabrication. As 3D printing materials evolve, more prototypes, tools and end-use parts are being printed to save engineers time and money.