What’s the Difference Between PLA and ABS?

PLA vs ABS – the most popular filaments for 3D printing. Let’s dive into details to discover the main differences between these two materials, and find out which one is the best for your project.

PLA vs ABS comparison
PLA (left) and ABS (right)

PLA and ABS: 3D Printing Materials Overviews

PLA is the most popular 3D printing material. That being said, it’s not perfect for all applications, although it is very versatile. PLA stands for polylactic acid (or polylactide). This common thermoplastic is easy to print, biodegradable, and inexpensive. It’s mostly used for rapid prototyping, making showcase models, or educational purposes. Almost all FDM 3D printers can 3D print with PLA. If you want to learn more about this material, check our PLA guide.

PLA sample and filament spools
PLA sample made on ZMorph VX Multitool 3D Printer

ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) on the other hand is slightly more durable than PLA. It’s a sturdy plastic with great impact strength and mechanical properties. It’s widely used for consumer goods, jigs & fixtures, casings, gears, or car interiors. ABS requires a closed chamber for 3D printing. Fortunately, ZMorph VX comes with magnetic covers and therefore 3D printing with ABS is also possible. Tips & tricks for printing with this 3D printing filament are given in our ABS overview.

ABS sample 3D printed on ZMorph VX all-in-one 3D printer
ABS sample made on ZMorph VX Multitool 3D Printer

PLA vs ABS: Strength and Durability Comparison

As you already know, ABS is considered as a stronger and more durable alternative to other common filaments, like PLA. It’s high time to test this assumption. Below you can watch a video where we checked PLA vs ABS strength. Silver wrench is made of PLA, and the black one is ABS.

PLA vs ABS strength test.

As you can see in the video, ABS exhibits more endurance. We made 4 samples altogether – 2x PLA and 2x ABS. All of them were 3D printed on ZMorph VX from our branded filaments at 12% infill. You can achieve more durability by tinkering with the quality settings in Voxelizer

PLA vs ABS strength comparison test
ABS will more likely bend than snap like PLA.
PLA strength test
PLA easily broke in half while applying pressure.
ABS strength test
ABS isn’t as breakable as PLA. It will bend rather than snap in half.

Main Differences Between ABS and PLA

PLA vs ABS filaments
PLA (silver) vs ABS (black)

The main difference between ABS and PLA is the impact strength. The first one is considered to be more durable and resistant to stress than PLA. It’s also more reliable when it comes to long term wear and tear. On the other hand, PLA, compared to ABS, is less toxic and easier to print. It requires lower temperatures (both extruder and printing bed) and doesn’t need a closed printing space. PLA is the most common filament when it comes to availability and color selection, so if you want to print multi-color showcase models you probably would like this material more.

4-color mountain
PLA 4-color mountain 3D printed with ZMorph Dual Extruder.

PLA is not demanding when it comes to nozzle temperature and it starts melting around 170°C. This comes in handy when you have access to only cheap 3D printer that operates on lower temperatures. You also don’t need a heated table (although it’s easier when you do). This feature, however, means that if you leave PLA model in a direct sunlight it may deform.

PLA vs ABS
PLA (silver) & ABS (black).

In the debate PLA vs ABS, the advantage for the first one is that it doesn’t need an enclosure. PLA is not as sensitive to temperature changes as ABS, and this means less problems with warping. Polylactide is also better for detailed models and is more suitable for 3D printing bridges and overhangs without support. 

ABS is more resistant to elements. It can withstand more pressure and heat than PLA and therefore is used for parts and models that will be exposed to a lot of wear and tear. 


PLAABS
Temperature (Extruder / Table)200-230°C / 60°C *220-250°C / 80-100°C *
Impact strength16 kJ/m2 *20 kJ/m2 *
Vicat softening temperature55°C *94°C *
Printer spaceOpenClosed

*Values might be slightly different for various filament brands.

You can find more technical data in ZMorph Materials Library.

Various PLA samples 3D printed on ZMorph VX.

ABS and PLA Prices

PLA and ABS both come at similar prices oscillating between $25 and $35 per kg. ZMorph is offering high-grade 1kg spools of both ABS and PLA filaments for $34. By buying cheaper, low-quality materials you are risking extruder clogging and poor quality of your printouts. 

ZMorph PLA
ZMorph offers high-quality 3D printing filaments.

Differences in Post-Processing

Although both materials are 3D printing plastics, there are some differences in post-processing PLA vs ABS. Let’s start with polylactide.

To smoothen the surface of PLA prints, you can use THF (Tetrahydrofuran) or regular sanding paper if you don’t want to involve chemicals. Some people also use heat guns to gently dissolve the surface and hide layers. 

ABS on the other hand is best post-processed using acetone. On our blog there’s a full instruction on post-processing ABS prints. Be sure to check it out. Generally speaking, ABS is considered to be easier to post-process compared to PLA. Sometimes just sanding is enough, and you would use acetone only if you want the model to be really smooth. 

Post-processing ABS prints.
Post-processing ABS prints.

Remember about your safety when post-processing PLA and ABS models. Wear safety gloves – chemicals can seriously damage your skin. Operate in well ventilated rooms as some toxic fumes may appear. 

Soluble Support Filaments: PLA vs ABS

Since both ABS and PLA are very common materials for 3D printing, there’s a market demand for soluble support filaments. The support filament should have similar printing temperature to the original material, therefore there are two options.

PLA can be mixed with PVA. PVA is polyvinyl alcohol and it easily dissolves in water. Use ZMorph Dual Extruder to 3D print models with PVA support. Voxelizer presets make it foolproof to mix the two filaments. When done, put your model in a bowl of water and wait a few hours (up to a full day, depending on the size of your model). PVA is biodegradable and non-toxic so you can get rid of the liquid by pouring it down the drain. 

PLA & PVA
PLA with PVA support.

The soluble alternative for ABS is HIPS. This material is also supported by ZMorph VX. Set the Voxelizer presets accordingly and use dual extrusion to make models with HIPS support. This filament is dissolvable in Limonene. It’s quite tricky though, because ABS left in Limonene for a longer period of time can dissolve too. Additionally, Limonene is more expensive than water, so the mix PLA + PVA is much more popular than ABS + HIPS.

ABS & HIPS
ABS with HIPS support.

Safety & Biodegradability

Everyone who is into 3D printing knows about ABS toxicity but unfortunately, PLA also emits some fumes that can be harmful. Therefore, you should never spend too much time in a room where a 3D printer is operating to minimize the fumes you breathe in. The odor of melted ABS is stronger than PLA, though. Remember to ventilate the room properly.

PLA is partly biodegradable and compostable because it’s made of renewable natural resources such as corn. ABS, unfortunately, presents no such features, therefore it’s more toxic to the environment. 

What’s Better for My Project: PLA or ABS?

It’s high time to sum up our knowledge and decide which material is better for your project: PLA or ABS? As you already know – ABS is only slightly harder to print because it requires a closed chamber and higher temperatures, that not every 3D printer can provide. That being said, ZMorph VX copes with ABS as well as PLA, so after all, it boils down to your personal preferences. 

PLA medical models - teeth
3D printed medical models made from PLA.

The main difference between ABS and PLA for 3D printing is durability and strength. One would use ABS filament whenever a sturdy material is necessary, whereas PLA can be used for quicker projects. What does it mean?

If you want to 3D print end-parts, functional prototypes, casings, you should stick to ABS. For rapid prototyping and showcase models use PLA – you can use less infill and print quicker saving some time and filament. 

ABS 3D printing
Various ABS samples.

Other Materials for Additive Manufacturing

ZMorph VX All-In-One 3D Printer supports 12 materials for 3D printing and 36 materials for subtractive manufacturing. All materials were tested by us and you can find the details in ZMorph Materials Library. Be sure to visit our blog regularly as we consecutively present material overviews with tips & tricks for 3D printing, laser engraving, and CNC machining. 

ZMorph Materials Library

Jakub Spiryn

Content Manager at ZMorph

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