Are you thinking of trying to 3D print with PLA filament? PLA is one of the most popular materials for 3D printing and an excellent choice for beginners because it’s easy to use and more economical than other filament options. Even so, there are some things you need to know before buying your first spool.
We’ll tell you all about what PLA is, why it’s a great option for 3D printing, and what settings and temperatures you should use for the best results.
What is PLA?
PLA (Polylactic acid) is a thermoplastic made from organic materials instead of petroleum. Short for polylactic acid, PLA is a compostable bioplastic derived from corn starch, sugarcane, and other types of renewable resources.
PLA has a wide variety of applications and is used in plastic bottles, plastic wrap, and some medical devices. While it is an efficient green alternative for product packaging and biodegradable components, PLA has a low heat tolerance which makes it unsuitable for any uses requiring direct contact with warm environments.
Why 3D Print With PLA?
PLA filament is one of the most popular materials for 3D printing because its material properties like low printing temperature makes it easy to print with. It is economical to produce, which leads to lower costs on filament. It is also easy to work with, mostly odorless, and biodegradable.
PLA filament is ideal for beginners and makers with budget 3D printers who don’t have advanced printing features. Unlike other filaments, like ABS, PETG and Nylon, PLA can be 3D printed without a heated build plate or 3D printer enclosure.
Downsides of PLA
While there are several benefits to using PLA filament for 3D printing, there are also some downsides.
The biggest drawback of polylactic acid is its low melting point and low glass transition temperature. These make it easy to print with but limit the durability of the finished products. 3D prints made with PLA filament are unable to withstand high temperatures and will start to soften and warp from being left in a hot car, or in direct sunlight on a hot day.
Using specialty PLA filament blends (also known as PLA+ / Pro PLA filament) can make your finished 3D prints more resistant to high temperatures without affecting the printing temperature. However, these do come at a higher cost.
Another issue with PLA is that it is not as easy to post-process as other filament options like ABS. While 3D prints made from ABS can be smoothed by placing them in a closed container with acetone, PLA is resistant to most chemical smoothers. Instead, smoothing PLA 3D prints is done by sanding and/or covering with an epoxy resin.
To learn more about the differences between PLA vs ABS, check out our guide on the two materials. We also have a great article comparing PETG vs PLA if you want an alternate option to PLA without the downsides and strong 3D printing fumes of ABS.
What Do You Need to 3D Print With PLA?
As mentioned above, it is quite easy to print with PLA filament. That means even the most basic 3D printers can usually handle it with little difficulty.
PLA filaments usually work well with nearly every hot end. If your hot end is capable of reaching a temperature of around 200 degrees Celsius, you can 3D print PLA with it. Most hotends for 3D printing are more than capable of reaching that nozzle temperature with little issue.
Similarly, to 3D print with PLA, your hot end does not need a fully constrained filament path. This is different from when working with flexible filament, for example.
You also don’t need an all-metal hot end for PLA either, since its low printing temperature means you won’t melt the non-metal components near your nozzle. When 3D printing high-temperature filaments, like Nylon or PEEK, you risk melting PTFE tubing and other non-metal components inside the hot end.
PLA also does not warp or deform that much as it cools, so it does not strictly require a heated bed to 3D print. This is different from when printing with ABS, where it is beneficial for the entire print to stay consistent and limit big differences in temperature.
The unnecessity of a heated bed makes PLA filament a great choice for 3D printing enthusiasts on a budget, as a heated bed adds additional costs (both in hardware and electricity usage) to the 3D printer.
That said, a heated bed is still an advantage when it comes to 3D printing PLA, as higher temperatures can increase bed adhesion of the first layer.
You can print PLA on most types of build plate surfaces, including metal, glass, and BuildTak. It does occasionally need an adhesive added to the surface of the bed if it is not sticking well on its own.
This can be as simple as a basic glue stick or as complex as a 3D print-specific adhesive. Painters’ tape on the bed is another popular way to make your PLA 3D prints stick.
Tips for PLA 3D Printing
It’s easy to get great results with PLA filament. If you are new to 3D printing, it is your best chance for getting good prints right away without too much fuss. It is just as easy to work with on a 3D printer under $300 as it is on a $1000 3D printer.
Even so, there are a few things to be aware of when starting to 3D print with PLA material.
How to Get the First Layer Right
It’s important to get the first layers just right with any 3D print, and PLA prints are no exception. The first layers are the building blocks for the whole print, so if they are off, the rest of the print will be as well.
The easiest way to get great-looking PLA prints is to have a level print bed. If your bed is uneven, certain areas of your first layers will be very close to the build plate while others are too far away. Not only does this make it difficult for the first layer to adhere to the build plate, it causes poor layer adhesion overall and makes the rest of the print unstable.
If your 3D printer does not offer automatic bed leveling, you might want to consider upgrading it with a BLTouch sensor to remove the need for manual leveling.
Your nozzle height is important to keep your first PLA print layers clean and well-adhered to the print bed. If the nozzle is too close to the bed, the melted filament will have difficulty extruding from the nozzle. If the nozzle is too far away from the print bed, the filament extrudes out in loose layers and doesn’t adhere well to the print bed or the previous layers.
Recommended PLA Print Settings
PLA is one of the easier 3D printing materials to get good print quality with even with a basic 3D printer. That being said, you need to know which PLA print settings to use in your slicing software to get the best results.
- Nozzle Temperature: 195-220C
- Bed Temperature: 60-70C (optional for better adhesion to the printer bed)
- Layer Height: 0.2mm for standard speed and quality
- Print Speed: 30-90mm / second
- Bed Material: Glass, aluminum, BuildTak.
Other settings like infill percentage, wall thickness, retraction speed, etc. are dependent on the individual project. For example, more infill is better for strength while a lower percentage is better to save filament. The download pages of most 3D models will give you the optimal settings for these settings.
Get the Temperature Right
Most PLA filaments work within a set range of printing temperatures. What exact temperature you should use depends on your 3D printer and the brand of PLA filament. Sometimes temperature settings can even vary between different colors of the same brand of filament since the pigments used to color them can affect the way filament behaves.
When trying a new type of PLA filament, you’ll need to experiment to find the best settings for your 3D printer. Check the specifications of your filament to find the ideal printing temperature range and run test prints starting at the lowest temperature. Work your way up by increasing the extruder temperature 5-10 degrees on each additional test print until you find the temperature that works best with your machine.
You can also print a temperature tower to do this within one print. Just be sure to track the specific PLA filament, 3D printer and settings you used so you remember what you tested for later.
Use a Good Quality Filament
It can be tempting to cut corners by using the cheapest PLA spool possible, but you almost always trade quality for those cheap prices. Inconsistent filament diameters, breakage from moisture, inconsistent tension on the spool, and other quality issues will make printing harder and result in a lot of waste.
You are better off buying a decent-quality PLA filament for a slightly higher cost per spool for easy printing and good results. There are many things that can go wrong during a 3D print, so controlling the obvious ones with good materials and parts makes the whole process much easier.
If you aren’t sure what brand to choose, head over to our guide on the best PLA filament brands to see our top picks.
My PLA Keeps Breaking Mid-print
Breaking PLA during 3D printing is most often caused by old or improperly stored filament. PLA can absorb moisture from the air, which causes it to turn brittle. If you bend your filament and it easily snaps in half, it’s probably been exposed to too much moisture.
A good way to fix and prevent this is by using a filament dry box for your 3D printing material. These keep filament dry for when you need it. Some even have the ability to dry out filament that has absorbed too much moisture, offering you the opportunity to restore brittle PLA.
If your PLA bends like it’s supposed to, the problem could be due to improper tension. Either the filament wasn’t wound on the spool consistently during production (a common problem with cheap filaments) or it is getting too much resistance at your spool holder.
My PLA Keeps Jamming My Extruder
A jamming 3D printer extruder is common with cheaper PLA filaments. It is usually because the filament’s diameter is not consistent. It can also be caused by the filament not being perfectly round, which is yet another sign of poor filament quality.
The best way to ensure that your filament is the size and shape it is supposed to be is to buy a quality filament that has been manufactured with precise tolerances. This will prevent PLA filament getting stuck in the PTFE tube.
Extruder jamming can also occur when the extruder temperature is set too low. However, this is harder to do with PLA than other materials like ABS, since PLA plastic has a pretty wide range of tolerances for extrusion temperature.
Many PLA+ filaments are formulated to avoid extruder jams and clogs. You can learn more about the differences between standard PLA vs PLA+ in our dedicated article.
PLA 3D printing is a great option for getting good print quality without the hassle of complicated print settings you sometimes have with other materials. You can 3D print PLA with a low extruder temperature and no heated bed or enclosure. While PLA does have some downsides, it is still one of the best materials for 3D printing beginners.
If you have any questions, for example if you are wondering if PLA is food safe, don’t hesitate to ask us in the comments!