Practical Magic: Different Stripes

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In 3D Printing Land there are two main types of filament—the material printers use to create your many and varied designs—ABS (Acrylonitrile-Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (PolyLactic Acid).

ABS is an oil-based plastic, very tough and robust, good for everyday objects, and chances are good that if you pick up the closest plastic object to you, it will be made out of ABS.  PLA is a biopolymer, biodegradable and made from renewable raw materials like cornstarch (which means it smells like waffles when it’s printing rather than more noxious chemicals).  Most compostable disposable utensils and to-go cups are made from PLA; check your cup next time you get an iced coffee to go from some of the local coffee shops.  PLA can be brittle as it ages, and is more heat-sensitive so it will warp if, for example, you leave it out in the sun on a black table during Market Square Day.  Despite these challenges and because of the irresistible waffle-smell, we print with PLA here at the library.

However, 3D printing enthusiasts and desktop 3D printers are not just limited to these two options.  Or rather, they are, but very crafty people have mixed a lot of very weird things with PLA, resulting in some funky finishes, weird smells and unique uses of renewable resources.

One of my favorite finishes is a wood-PLA composite.  There are quite a few varieties, from bamboo—talk about a renewable resource—to willow, each with its own distinctive coloring.  While it is prone to the same weaknesses as regular PLA, it is perfect for home décor and fills one of the many niches that desktop 3D printing is attempting to fill.  Planters and picture frames are just a quick print away!

Makerbot, the creator of our printer Gutenberg, has recently released a new filament, which they’ve creatively dubbed “Tough PLA”.  It appears to be as good as its name, and they’ve specifically designed it to be used for durable prints and prototyping, ideal if you need to test a design that requires any sort of impact, torque or pressure.

If you’re looking for a tough but also aesthetically pleasing filament, Proto-Pasta makes quite a few metal composites, from stainless steel and iron to electrically conductive graphite.  While we haven’t printed with these here at the library (so I can’t comment on what they might do to an extruder), the idea that you could 3D print something and then make it look really old by rusting it using white vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and salt, is just so neat.

On the other end of the spectrum from iron is flexi-filament.  There are quite a few brands that make a variety of flexible filament, and they run from squishy enough to flatten with your hand to sturdy enough to wear on your feet (yes, you can 3D print shoes, though I can’t imagine they would breathe all that well).  Flex filament can be challenging to print with, but for designs that need to withstand a lot of handling or need to bend, it’s a great idea.

Some prints are intricate, or have overhangs, or necessary gaps that can’t be designed away just to make it easier to print, and so you use supports and scrape off the extra material when it’s done printing.  But what if a magical substance existed that just disappeared when you were done?  Well, thank goodness for science, because it does exist and it is dissolvable filament made out of high impact polystyrene that melts away in a limonene bath.  It does really only work with ABS because of the necessary print temperature, but knowing it’s out there in the world is a comfort as I pick away PLA support material with an x-acto knife.

Now, for my all-time favorite lineup of composite PLA filaments, all from 3D-Fuel: Buzzed, filament made from waste products from beer-making (barley, malt, etc.), smells lightly of barley while printing; Entwined, filament made from industrial hemp (much more environmentally-friendly than growing corn), smells like fresh cut grass while printing; Wound-Up, filament made from waste products from coffee making—a great use for all those grounds—and smells like a latte while printing.  Based solely on the name and concept, however, my number one pick for weird PLA hybrid is Landfilament, tagline: “3D print with hot garbage!”  No mention of how it smells while printing.

While we haven’t set Gute and Ada loose on these ~exotic~ filaments, I’m itching to try a few of them.  What would you use if we had it?  Have you tried any of the above?  Let us know!


Check our events calendar and computer class schedule for updates on 3D printing demos!


Gutenberg enjoGutenbergys humming, getting crafty, and causing mischief around the library. Ada enjoys reading up on the latest 3D printing technology and researching tips and tricks to make life easier. Gute and Ada’s people enjoy tinkering, making, and discovering ingenious solutions to everyday problems. If you have questions or suggestions for future Practical Magic posts, please feel free to email us at libtech@cityofportsmouth.com.

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