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What Exactly is PLA?

Introduction

In this article, I will tell you about the most popular 3D printing material – PLA, which is short for Polylactic Acid.

PLA is a plastic-based printing material, and it’s used in the majority of desktop 3D printers that you find in homes and schools that use the FDM method or Fused Deposition Modeling.

Material Properties

PLA filament has similar characteristics to plastics you might be familiar with, such as polystyrene and PET. It’s quite tough, and in an indoor environment, it is suitable for many applications.

The low glass transition temperature helps to make it easy to use in many 3D printers. However, models created in PLA may suffer distortion when exposed to high temperatures, for example, in a hot car.

It has excellent dimensional accuracy, which allows designers to validate the size and specifications of the original object. It tends to be used for long as it has a good shelf life.

PLA has a flexural modulus of 4 GPa and a density of 1.3 g/cm3.

As PLA is made from plant material rather than petroleum, it is biodegradable, which makes it unique from most other 3D printing materials. It degrades when exposed to the environment naturally.  

Is PLA Toxic or Harmful?

PLA is not toxic. It is biodegradable and used in medical implants and is used in the handling of food. When it is heated in a 3D printer, it does not release any known harmful toxins.

It is not suitable for high-temperature applications as it has a relatively low glass transition temperature, meaning it will distort.

How Is PLA Made?

PLA is a thermoplastic polymer that comes from sugarcane or corn starch that is a renewable resource. It is one of the most environmentally friendly 3D printing filaments on the market.

Applications of PLA

PLA can be used for the vast majority of 3D printing applications. The best way to think about it is to work out what PLA can’t be used for. The main limitations of PLA are:

Heat Resistance

PLA will withstand temperatures up to around 60C before it starts to soften and distort. This means any object that might be left in a hot car or in contact with boiling water should not be made from PLA.

Strength

PLA is a little brittle. In most applications, you won’t notice, but for anything that is load-bearing or structural, you may want to consider a material such as PETG or ABS, which will tend to flex rather than snapping.

Water Resistance

PLA is highly hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb moisture. This isn’t a problem by itself, but it does mean it is prone to harboring germs or mold spores if left in a damp environment, for example, a bathroom.

PLA is considered the wrong choice for designers working in the architecture domain. PLA is not suitable for outdoor and construction applications where components can be exposed to sunlight, heat, and humidity very quickly, which will degrade the material very fast.

In summary, if your 3D print doesn’t need to be heat-proof, water-proof, or carry heavy loads, then PLA should be your number one choice.

Why is PLA the Most Popular Filament?

PLA is the most commonly used 3D printing material and is known for its ease of use. When printing with PLA, you don’t need a heated print bed, and you can use a relatively low nozzle temperature.

PLA readily sticks to the print bed, with household products such as glue stick or painters tape helping if necessary.

PLA doesn’t distort as it cools down, which means your 3D printer doesn’t need to be fully enclosed or sealed from draughts.

PLA filament is perfect for 3D prints in which aesthetics play a significant role as it is easy to sand, clean, and paint.

PLA is one of the cheapest filaments and is available in a vast array of different colors and finishes, from standard primary colors through to color changing and glow in the dark finishes.

Designing for PLA

There are specific properties that a designer needs to consider when 3D printing with PLA.

Filaments are quite brittle and break if precautions are not taken. PLA is very hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water, so it’s important that your filament spools are kept in an airtight storage solution.

PLA is relatively strong, however it is brittle so thin sections should be avoided and extra material designed into load-bearing structures.

The Best PLA Filament Brands


Over the years, I have tried many different brands of PLA filament with varying results. Here are some of the PLA brands I trust and regularly use so you can buy them with confidence.

eSun Black PLA Pro Filament

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eSun comes on a 2.2 lbs transparent spool. It has a superb layer bonding with smoother finished prints. I have always found eSun to be a reliable filament, and it’s always available at a competitive price. There’s a very good range of colors, some of them unique to the brand. I particularly like the pale blue and pink colors.

Colorfabb PLA/PHA Filament

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This filament has a unique blend of PLA with PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate). This makes the filament less brittle than pure PLA, making it suitable for more load-bearing applications where some strength is required.

PLA is a bio polyester, which means it is biodegradable, like PLA. It’s available in both 1.75 and 3.00mm diameters.

Overture Tough PLA Filament

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This is a PLA filament that has been heat-treated to give it similar properties to ABS.  The stiffness and strength are similar to ABS.

There are sure cons to using this particular filament. It has no option for warping or delamination for the printing of more substantial parts, although it is compatible with polyvinyl alcohol.

It provides full geometric freedom with breakaway support materials, especially if you use a dual extruder printer.

This PLA filament finds applications in creating tough plastic parts with impact strength closer to ABS. The technical demands of PLA filaments include fixtures, tools, and jigs.

Tough PLA is perfect for intricate printing curves, overhangs, and exquisite details.

It is the designer’s favorite filament when it comes to print sturdy PLA material.

Proto-Pasta PLA Stainless Steel

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This is one of my favorite metal blend PLA filaments. It is a standard grey PLA with particles of stainless steel added to give it a metallic sheen. It can even be polished like metal.

The recommendation is to print material in the temperature range between 190 C to 230 C while using a larger nozzle (0.4mm approx. or higher). However, this PLA filament is more brittle than standard PLA.

The product printed results in heavy cast metal looking prints that can be polished and brushed for achieving astounding results.

They are perfect for making costumes, jewelry, robots, props, and figurines. Stainless steel is more brittle than standard PLA in filament form. It requires extra care while handling.

It might be less consistent on Bowden type machines or small nozzles if it requires first layer adjustment after replacing injectors.  Direct-drive systems fair better.

Proto-Pasta uses recyclable spools with no metal or plastic parts.

Paramount Matte PLA Filament

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Paramount Matte finish PLA is a unique nonglossy finish. Although it is named matte, it’s more of a satin finish. This is great for hiding blemishes and making your prints look more finished than they do with a high sheen.

I find this filament particularly suitable for printing miniatures and figurines with lots of detail, and it makes an excellent base for overpainting.

It also produces solvent smell while printing, so I recommend proper ventilation.

Dylan

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