Get instant quote

3D printing with PLA vs. ABS: What's the difference?

PLA and ABS are two essential materials for 3D printing with FDM. They are also two of the most popular materials on our platform. This comparison will help you choose which material to use for your 3D-printed custom parts.

PLA vs. ABS: What's the difference?

PLA and ABS are the two most common materials for prototyping (desktop) FDM 3D printing (aside from, perhaps, PETG). As thermoplastics, both filaments enter a soft and moldable state when heated, returning to a solid-state when cooled. FDM printers melt and extrude PLA and ABS filament through a nozzle to build up parts layer by layer.

While both materials are used for FDM, they have key differences that make each more optimal for different applications. In this article, we’ll cover the main differences between these commonly used materials.

We also have this handy Youtube explainer video that covers the differences between PLA and ABS filaments.



Want to compare pricing for PLA and ABS?

Upload your CAD file to the quote builder

What are PLA and ABS filaments?

PLA (Polylactic Acid) is a thermoplastic derived from renewable sources such as cornstarch or sugarcane. Biodegradable under the right conditions, PLA is one of the most popular bioplastics and is perfect for a variety of applications ranging from plastic cups to medical implants. It’s easy to print with and has a higher stiffness than ABS and materials like nylon. While PLA is stronger than ABS and nylon, it’s not very heat or chemical resistant. 

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) is another common thermoplastic, also popular in the injection molding industry. ABS has superior mechanical properties to PLA, as well as being more durable and lighter, though it’s harder to print with. This material is better able to deflect heat than PLA and nylon, but it’s absolutely not completely heat resistant. Prevalent applications of ABS include LEGO bricks, electronic housings and automotive bumper parts.

What’s the difference between PLA and ABS? 

PLA and ABS differ in several ways, including their unique tensile strength, density and ideal applications. The table below compares the key material properties of PLA and ABS filaments.

Properties* ABS PLA
Tensile Strength** 27 MPa 37 MPa
Elongation 3.5 - 50% 6%
Flexural Modulus 2.1 - 7.6 GPa 4 GPa
Density 1.0 - 1.4 g/cm3 1.3 g/cm3
Melting Point 200 ℃ 173 ℃
Biodegradable No Yes, under the correct conditions
Glass Transition Temperature 105 ℃ 60 ℃
Spool Price*** (1kg, 1.75mm, black) $USD 21.99 $USD 22.99
Common Products LEGO, electronic housings Cups, plastic bags, cutlery

What is the part accuracy of PLA and ABS?

In general, the tolerances and accuracy of FDM printed components depend on printer calibration and model complexity. However, you can use PLA and ABS to create dimensionally accurate parts with printing details of 0.8 mm and minimum features of 1.2 mm. For connecting or interlocking parts, we recommend a tolerance of 0.5 mm and a minimum wall thickness of 1-2 mm. This will ensure that your part has adequate strength across all wall elements. 

Thanks to its lower printing temperature, PLA is easier to print with and less likely to warp (when properly cooled). You can use PLA to print sharper corners and finer features than with ABS.



Want to improve your 3D printing design skills?

Download our free 3D printing design rules poster

How strong are PLA and ABS parts?

PLA and ABS have similar tensile strengths, making them solid options for many prototyping applications. Designers and engineers often prefer ABS due to its improved ductility over PLA. ABS has higher flexural strength and better elongation before breaking than PLA, which means that ABS can also be used for end-use applications. PLA, on the other hand, is more popular for rapid prototyping when the form is more critical than the function.

Overall, PLA is a good option for your custom parts if you don’t plan on putting them under a lot of physical stress (or UV radiation and high temperatures). ABS is more fitting for industrial applications and can weather physical strain better than PLA.

How fast can you print with PLA and ABS?

Both PLA and ABS print at nearly identical speeds. This means that you don’t have to change speed settings on your FDM machines when switching between materials. For PLA, printing at 60 mm/s is pretty standard, though some operators have printed at over 150 mm/s, so the standard speed is by no means a limit. You can also print ABS at the same speed, but between 40-60 mm/s is a bit more accurate for this material.


Surface finishes and post-processing for PLA and ABS

Whether you produce parts using PLA or ABS, FDM-printed components will always have visible layers. Using PLA often results in a glossier finish, while ABS typically prints in a matte finish. To smooth an ABS-printed part and give it a glossy finish, you can use acetone in post-processing. Sanding and additional machining are viable post-processing options for parts printed in ABS. You can also sand and machine PLA, though greater care is required. 

If aesthetic quality is critical, then we recommend using SLA 3D printing to produce your custom parts. 

A 100 micron ABS print with Acetone treatment (Left), a 100 micron ABS print (middle) and a 200 micron ABS print (right).



Want to explore all the options for FDM post-processing?

Learn more

How heat resistant are PLA and ABS?

For applications requiring higher temperatures, ABS (glass transition temperature of 105°C) is preferable over PLA (glass transition temperature of 60°C). PLA can rapidly lose its structural integrity and can begin to droop and deform as it approaches 60°C, especially if it's supporting a heavier load. 

Are PLA and ABs biodegradable?

PLA is stable in general atmospheric conditions, though it will biodegrade within 50 days in industrial composters and 48 months in water. While ABS is not biodegradable, you can recycle it. This being the case, manufacturers tend to use PLA to produce items related to food service, though we absolutely recommend you get safety confirmation from filament manufacturers. 




Frequently asked questions

When should you use PLA?

PLA is ideal when you’re looking for higher-quality aesthetics. Its lower printing temperature makes it easier to print with than ABS, especially if your parts have fine details.

When should you use ABS?

ABS is best suited for applications where you need strength, ductility, machinability and thermal stability. Being more durable than PLA makes ABS a viable option for prototyping, low-stress end-use components and other practical applications. However, be aware that ABS is more prone to warping.

How strong are PLA and ABS?

PLA and ABS are similar in terms of their tensile strengths, though engineers often go for ABS as it has better ductility than PLA. ABS has higher flexural strength and better elongation before breaking than PLA.


Are PLA and ABS flexible?

Unlike TPU , PLA and ABS aren’t flexible filament materials, though ABS is less brittle than PLA in nearly all applications.

Is PLA or ABS more expensive?

PLA and ABS tend to have similar prices, which can reach approximately $40 to $75 (€36 to €68) per kg filament spool. ABS is likely cheaper than PLA if you’re considering only the cost of the raw materials. Also, PLA’s wider variety of brands, colors, and blends make it more popular than ABS. 


How long do PLA and ABS last?

Parts made from PLA and ABS will last a long time (decades, in fact), so long as they’re not used in a heavy load-bearing capacity.


Are PLA and ABS toxic?

When you heat any thermoplastic, it releases fumes, some of which may contain harmful particulates. PLA is plant-based, so it shouldn’t give off any bad odors or noxious fumes. However, ABS tends to be more toxic than PLA and can smell much worse. That’s why we recommend using a proper enclosure and ventilation system.


 

More resources for engineers

Product development & manufacturing: how do you source parts for the initial prototyping stage

What are the best manufacturing processes for creating initial prototypes? This article covers the key benefits of prototyping with technologies like FDM, SLA and sheet metal fabrication and how to save time and money with these processes.

Read article

What is Delrin (POM-H) and what are its material properties?

What is Delrin and why is it unique among the many manufacturing materials available? Delrin, or POM-H (homopolymer acetal), is used in CNC machining, 3D printing and injection molding to create durable, precise components. This article explores Delrin’s properties and how to get the most out of the material.

Read article

What materials do we offer for CNC machining?

What’s the best material for machining your parts? Check out this side-by-side comparison of the strength, price and application for CNC plastics and metals (in a handy, printable poster).

Read article
A custom designed part printed on MJF printer.

What is MJF (HP's Multi Jet Fusion) 3D printing?

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) is a 3D printing process for building prototyping and end-use parts fast. This article explains how MJF works and its main advantages.

Read article
FDM Rapid Prototyping Service

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping uses 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing processes to quickly develop 3D parts or assemblies for research and development and/or product testing.

Read article
Selecting the right CNC material

How do you select the right materials for CNC machining?

This comprehensive guide compares the 25 most common materials used in CNC machining and helps you choose the right one for your application.

Read article
SLA 3D Printing materials compared

What’s the right resin for SLA? 3D printing materials compared

What are the different materials available for SLA 3D printing? This article compares the main printing resins, including standard, tough, durable, heat resistant, rubber-like, dental and castable, by material properties. Find the best material option for your application.

Read article
Introduction to Binder Jetting 3D printing

What is Binder Jetting 3D printing?

In this introduction to Binder Jetting 3D printing, we cover the basic principles of the technology. After reading this article you will understand the fundamental mechanics of the Binder Jetting process and how these relate to its benefits and limitations.

Read article
Simulations in 3D Printing

Simulations in 3D printing

Learn about the benefits and current state-of-the-art of 3D printing simulations. This article describes why, what and how to use simulations in 3D printing and gives tips to help you get started.

Read article
Selecting the right 3D printing process

What’s the right 3D printer for prototyping? Comparing 3D printing processes

What 3D printing process is optimal for prototyping? This article explores the best 3D printers for the prototyping phase of product development, including design advice to get the most out of each manufacturing technology.

Read article
Introduction to Metal 3D printing

What is metal 3D printing and how does it work?

What is metal 3D printing? How does this additive technology work? This article covers the basic principles of SLM (selective laser melting) and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) and how these relate to the key benefits and limitations of 3D printing.

Read article
HP MJF vs. SLS: A 3D Printing Technology Comparison

What is the difference between Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing?

What is the difference between MJF and SLS 3D printing technology in terms of accuracy, materials, cost and lead times? Here’s how to choose the right additive manufacturing technology for your custom part needs.

Read article

Product development & manufacturing: how do you source parts for the initial prototyping stage

What are the best manufacturing processes for creating initial prototypes? This article covers the key benefits of prototyping with technologies like FDM, SLA and sheet metal fabrication and how to save time and money with these processes.

Read article

What is Delrin (POM-H) and what are its material properties?

What is Delrin and why is it unique among the many manufacturing materials available? Delrin, or POM-H (homopolymer acetal), is used in CNC machining, 3D printing and injection molding to create durable, precise components. This article explores Delrin’s properties and how to get the most out of the material.

Read article

What materials do we offer for CNC machining?

What’s the best material for machining your parts? Check out this side-by-side comparison of the strength, price and application for CNC plastics and metals (in a handy, printable poster).

Read article
A custom designed part printed on MJF printer.

What is MJF (HP's Multi Jet Fusion) 3D printing?

Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) is a 3D printing process for building prototyping and end-use parts fast. This article explains how MJF works and its main advantages.

Read article
FDM Rapid Prototyping Service

What is rapid prototyping?

Rapid prototyping uses 3D computer-aided design (CAD) and manufacturing processes to quickly develop 3D parts or assemblies for research and development and/or product testing.

Read article
Selecting the right CNC material

How do you select the right materials for CNC machining?

This comprehensive guide compares the 25 most common materials used in CNC machining and helps you choose the right one for your application.

Read article
SLA 3D Printing materials compared

What’s the right resin for SLA? 3D printing materials compared

What are the different materials available for SLA 3D printing? This article compares the main printing resins, including standard, tough, durable, heat resistant, rubber-like, dental and castable, by material properties. Find the best material option for your application.

Read article
Introduction to Binder Jetting 3D printing

What is Binder Jetting 3D printing?

In this introduction to Binder Jetting 3D printing, we cover the basic principles of the technology. After reading this article you will understand the fundamental mechanics of the Binder Jetting process and how these relate to its benefits and limitations.

Read article
Simulations in 3D Printing

Simulations in 3D printing

Learn about the benefits and current state-of-the-art of 3D printing simulations. This article describes why, what and how to use simulations in 3D printing and gives tips to help you get started.

Read article
Selecting the right 3D printing process

What’s the right 3D printer for prototyping? Comparing 3D printing processes

What 3D printing process is optimal for prototyping? This article explores the best 3D printers for the prototyping phase of product development, including design advice to get the most out of each manufacturing technology.

Read article
Introduction to Metal 3D printing

What is metal 3D printing and how does it work?

What is metal 3D printing? How does this additive technology work? This article covers the basic principles of SLM (selective laser melting) and DMLS (direct metal laser sintering) and how these relate to the key benefits and limitations of 3D printing.

Read article
HP MJF vs. SLS: A 3D Printing Technology Comparison

What is the difference between Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) and Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) 3D printing?

What is the difference between MJF and SLS 3D printing technology in terms of accuracy, materials, cost and lead times? Here’s how to choose the right additive manufacturing technology for your custom part needs.

Read article

Show more

Show less

Ready to transform your CAD file into a custom part? Upload your designs for a free, instant quote.

Get an instant quote