Everything you could need to know about PLA filaments:
When picking the type of filament you wish to use for 3D printing there are plenty of things to consider. This articles will provide you with all the info you could need about PLA and why it could be the right choice for you.
What does PLA mean and what is it?
PLA is a plastic filament and it stands for “Polylactic Acid”. PLA is one of, if not the most, popular filaments for 3D printing.
How long does PLA last?
Because PLA is an environmentally friendly plastic, created from renewable resources such as soy and corn starches it is actually biodegradable. If you’re looking to be environmentally responsible this is certainly the filament for you. PLA typically takes about 10-15 years to biodegrade, which means it’s good for the environment but perhaps not good for you if you’re hoping to print some long-lasting creation.
How diverse is PLA?
PLA is one of the most interesting filament types available today. The reason being is that it’s a super diverse, it’s capable of being blended to achieve such a wide variance or style, colors, finishes and blends.
PLA is available in such a wide spectrum of colors that it’s sure to be able to fit whatever need you may have in mind. Because of the way the plastic is created almost any color on the spectrum is available so it’s needless to list them, what is worth listing however is the different material blends available.
Did you know PLA is actually so resilient that when blended with other materials it retains its structure and even takes on the properties of new materials. For example, when blended with wood fibers to create wood-like printed works, if you gently sand down your print you can even achieve a natural looking wood grain.
Another interesting example is when metal powder is added to the filament during production. By adding metal powder before printing its possible to polish your print with a steel wool and make it shine, just like any other metallic item.
Making sure your equipment is up to the job of printing PLA:
Not all printers were created equal. Some will be capable of printing these diverse wood or metal blends and others won’t. You should check with the manufacturer online to confirm you’ll be able to handle printing some of these blends. Not all the filaments will be easy to handle so make sure your set up, is up to scratch.
Perhaps you’re not interested in printing these blends yet and are more focused on just printing different color variations of PLA. There are still somethings to keep in mind, your printer still needs to be confirmed as capable and even then it’s best to print PLA using a printer with a filament fan. PLA is a cold bed filament, after all.
Is PLA plus worth the money?
The answer is it honestly depends on what you’re looking for. Some companies will dishonestly label their filament as “pro” or “plus” to try to increase sales. It can be difficult to determine whether this more expensive filament you’ve got your eye on is actually worth the money or if it’s just advertisers waffling.
Normally it’s best to stick to the most popular brands and check out some reviews online first. It’s better to pay more for a well known brand “better quality” product than for a no name one that’s half the price. It’ll end up costing more if you damage the printer with shoddy filament.
The Pros and Cons of PLA:
Like all products there are going to be pros and cons, some are just dependent on you and your equipment. This section will try to cover as much as possible to help you decide if PLA is actually for you.
PLA is easy to use:
This filament is very popular because of how easy it is to use compared to some other products. It’s print temperature is much lower, as it’s a cold bed filament. Meaning, less likely to block the nozzle or warp it. And less expensive to run.
PLA doesn’t smell:
If you’ve experimented with different filament types you know that some tend to give off a foul odor, when used frequently that can become less than ideal. PLA doesn’t smell bad the same way other types, such as ABS, do.
PLA isn’t stringy:
Some filament types can be prone to stringiness, blobbing and warping. Because PLA doesn’t have these issues it gives your product a smother more professional and aesthetically pleasing finish.
PLA is environmentally friendly:
PLA is a non-toxic eco-friendly filament type. As mentioned above, PLA is created from naturally occurring plant starches. This leads it to being completely harmless and naturally biodegradable within 15 years.
PLA takes on color easily:
Because of its structure PLA has easy pigmentation, meaning it can and will take on almost any color in the spectrum. It might be slightly hard for you to find the color for sale but it most likely is possible to create any color you could want.
PLA is a cold bed filament:
Although being cold bed was given as a positive multiple times above, it does have some drawbacks. Because PLA is cold bed, it reacts poorly to heat. This means when direct heat is applied it can warp and distort permanently damaging it. Leading me into my next point.
PLA has limited practical applications:
Because of its weakness to heat, PLA has limited mechanical applications. It won’t hold up well in situations where it receives direct heat and is unreliable at best when even nearby to a powerful heat source.
PLA has a short self life:
The cost of being environmentally conscious is a short life on your prints. Because PLA is designed to only last 10-15 years this should be considered when using it, instead of a longer lasting more sturdy filament. This isn’t a problem if you aren’t expecting your prints to last this long anyway, but it is something to be considered.
PLA is brittle:
PLA is brittle once printed. This can become a problem if your print is expected to support much weight or receive varying kinds of stresses. It also means it should be avoided for use around food or produce as it’s brittle nature leaves it absolutely not food safe.
What should and shouldn’t PLA be used for:
The pros and cons of PLA above give a good indication of what it should and should not be used for. Here is a more comprehensive list of PLA’s best applications.
PLA should be used for making prototypes:
It’s quick and easy printing means PLA is a great choice for creating a prototype product that’s not expected to actually fulfil the need of the finished thing.
Should be used for creating visual products:
PLA’s diverse colors and blends means it’s a great choice of filament for creating art, cool prints and general aesthetic items that aren’t meant to actually perform a function except look good.
PLA should not be used for machinery:
PLA is absolutely not designed to be part of any machinery, it doesn’t have the structural integrity that one might hope for. Nor does it have the heat resistance needed for being part of a machine. If you’re looking to 3D print some spare parts PLA is not the filament for you.
PLA should also not be used for anything that is expected to bend, it’s incredibly brittle and will just snap instead.
Does PLA have high toxicity?
PLA, unlike many other filaments, actually has a low toxicity. That’s one of the reasons it’s so popular. It’s a great alternative to other more common filaments that can be extremely harmful.
Now, this doesn’t mean that it’s toxicity free. Unlike some filaments that emit carcinogens, PLA emits something called ”lactide”. Lactide is actually thought by some researchers to be completely harmless; though there hasn’t yet been enough research so you should still be careful. Try to avoid inhaling the fumes.
How should I store my PLA?
Like many filaments PLA needs to be stored safely and carefully. If left out it can absorb moisture from the air and it’ll completely ruin the filament. Special storage containers can be purchased that hold multiple spools, so you can keep all your favorite colors.
How much does it cost and where can I buy it?
PLA is one of, if not the most, readily available filament types. You should be able to find it almost anywhere that sells 3D printing equipment. Because of how popular and common it’s become you can find and purchase 1KG of PLA for about US$25.
In conclusion PLA is a great, affordable and easy to use filament. Although it has some very clear limitations, it has a wide range of applications of use and aesthetics is where it really shines. Using this article as reference hopefully you’ll be able to decide whether PLA is the right filament for you.