Choosing a filament: ABS vs PLA

Decided to buy a 3D printer?

Next step is choosing what filament to use for your 3D prints – ABS or PLA? Our guide will help you choose.

Every printer needs some sort of “ink” and for 3D printers that ink is known as “filament”. Different filaments can have quite different properties and choosing which one to use with your home 3D printer may depend on a number of factors including:

  • Function of 3D printed model – What will your model be used for?
  • Strength – How much punishment will your model take?
  • Ease of use – Potential problems with warping?
  • Compatability – What filament can your printer use?
  • Cost – Can you afford to print the models you need?
  • Availability – Can you order locally for quick delivery?
  • Safety – Is your filament safe for children?

For some of you, choosing a filament type is not a luxury your printer will afford you. Not all 3D printers take all types of filament and using the wrong one could damage your printer. Make sure to check the user manual to see what types of filament are compatible with your printer before you start.   For those of you who do get to choose what filament to use for your 3D printer (or are choosing a printer based on filament options), there are two main contenders – ABS and PLA.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) has been used for many years to make all kinds of things, including the popular children’s toy LEGO. ABS is light, durable, and surprisingly strong, making it a popular choice for tools and utensils, as well as toys.

ABS is a sturdy plastic that allows prints to have a great resistance to high temperatures, so it can be used for printing things like containers that hold hot liquids. However, because of this high resistance to heat, ABS must be extruded at a very high temperature (260 degrees) and must be printed onto a heated print bed.

The high level of heat needed to extrude ABS can raise a safety concern if your printer isn’t enclosed from kid’s small hands. Both the extruder and print bed can be extremely hot before, during and after the printing process.   The reliance of ABS filament on high temperatures during the printing process can cause warping. If your printer is open to cool air and drafts, the consistency of your print bed temperature can become compromised, resulting in ruined prints.

Polylactic Acid (PLA)

PLA FilamentIn home 3D printing, the rival to ABS is Polylactic Acid (PLA). PLA a plastic derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, tapioca roots and sugar cane. Because PLA is made from natural resources, it’s a highly cost effective way to produce 3D prints.
PLA generally runs at around $8-$10 cheaper than ABS for a 2.2 lb roll. Another big plus to PLA being made from renewable resources is that it is biodegradable and recyclable. Because PLA can be recycled to monomer by thermal depolymerization, or hydrolysis, the monomer (when purified) can be used for the manufacture of virgin PLA.

Like other plastics, PLA is used by FDM printers, but can be extruded at a lower temperature than ABS plastics due to its low glass transition temperature.   The main downfall of prints made with PLA is performance in high temperatures. Due to PLA’s relatively low glass transition temperature, it loses its strength as it heats up. So if you wanted to print a coffee cup, for example, you would need to use ABS instead of PLA, as the heat from the hot liquid will cause PLA to warp and “melt”. PLA isn’t as strong as its more expensive counterpart, but it’s often strong enough and a very popular choice for manufacturers and home users alike.


PLA is the cheaper and easier to use option, but ABS is the stronger and more durable filament. Which filament you decide to use will ultimately come down to what you intend to print and how you plan to use your 3D printed objects.   For anyone new to 3D printing, I would recommend using PLA for 3D printing at home. Its low cost and ease of use make it perfect for anyone beginning to work with this new and exciting technology.   Whichever filament you choose, both are well suited for home 3D printing and will give you great results.