TPU and Its Alternatives – A Review of the Most Flexible Filament for 3D Printing

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The recent introduction of flexible filaments to the market has greatly increased the variety of raw materials suitable for use in 3D printers. Despite being a previously unexplored option for material choice, flexibility is now available to end users.

TPU, or thermoplastic polyurethane, is the most flexible 3D printing material. Unlike other rigid materials, it offers a high degree of flexibility while resistant to environmental conditions such as extreme temperatures, water, oil, and radiation.

This article will provide an overview of thermoplastic polyurethane and discuss its distinguishing qualities. We’ll also go through some alternatives to TPU that are just as bendable and durable. Continue reading to learn more.

Introduction to Thermoplastic Polyurethane (TPU)

TPU is a polymer that combines the unique qualities of rubber and plastic to produce materials with incredible strength, elasticity, and flexibility. It has several advantages, including compression set resistance, abrasion resistance, excellent impact resistance properties, flame retardant properties, high-temperature resistance, heat resistance and fatigue resistance.

TPU’s primary benefit is its high level of flexibility; objects created with TPU are highly resistant to external pressure, wear and tear, and high temperatures. Additionally, TPU is flexible due to the elasticity provided by its molecular bonds and, therefore, can be used to create items with elastic properties, such as wearable technology like gloves and wristbands.

Some of the unique characteristics of TPU include:

High Impact Strength

This material is a low-weight material option known for its high-impact strengths, surpassing rubber, vinyl, or natural latex. This means it can withstand greater force and considerable deformation before breaking, resulting in improved safety in industrial applications and consumer products.

TPU shows tremendous flexibility when molded into complex shapes without any deterioration in its structure. Its durability enables it to resist abrasion effectively and impacts better than other materials, making it perfect for any application where elongation and strength are important factors.

Strong Electrical Properties

TPU is an excellent insulator and will not corrode or degrade in quality due to electrical currents. On top of that, TPU’s rubber-like quality and low surface resistance makes it particularly conductive, protecting sensitive electronic parts from external interference.

This impressive quality is beneficial for 3D printing to be used in the automotive industry and the manufacturing of electronics, mild-stress parts and aerospace industry.

Good Thermal Properties

TPU can withstand temperatures ranging from -30 to 150 °C without compromising its structure. This property makes them suitable for a wide range of applications, from medical devices that require sterilization with boiling water to winter sports equipment that needs to endure freezing conditions.

Chemical Resistance

TPU offers excellent resistance to chemicals, making it great for optical applications in which chemical exposure is a possibility. This means it can form tight seals against aggressive media and won’t be damaged or corroded, providing reliable protection and durability.

Its superior chemical resistivity also increases its lifespan as it prevents degradation over time. This makes TPU an ideal material for products meant to endure harsh conditions in environments where chemicals may be present.

Highly Recyclable

Another attractive feature of TPU is that it is highly recyclable, meaning it can be reprocessed multiple times without losing its physical or chemical properties.

This cycle can be repeated numerous times with no discernible changes to its physical properties – making it a sustainable choice for businesses looking for long-term solutions. As such, recyclable thermoplastic polyurethane provide an excellent combination of temperature resistance, chemical stability, resilience, and flexibility – along with environmental friendliness.

Alternative Flexible Filament Options

A variety of other flexible material offerings besides thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) are available for use in 3D printing. Some of them are:

Thermoplastic Polyamide (TPA)

Thermoplastic polyamide is a revolutionary material for 3D printing that has endless potential, allowing you to create the wildest shapes and designs. It is a chemical co-polymer comprising thermoplastic elastomer (TPE) and very flexible nylon.

The combination of nylon, which lends the material its silky smoothness and luster, and thermoplastic elastomer (TPE), which gives the material its flexibility, results in the final product.

With its excellent structural strength, excellent UV resistance and dimensional stability, TPA can help you produce objects that are strong enough to do many tasks and last beyond what most traditional materials can achieve.

Pros

  • TPA has a long-term wear resistance property. It is highly resistant to abrasion and chemicals, giving it an edge in many plastic 3D printing applications.
  • It can handle operating temperatures of up to 230°C.
  • It is dimensionally stable and has a high elongation at break, making it great for precision engineering.
  • Its memory recall capabilities are unmatched – parts made from TPA return to their original shape when heat-treated again.

Cons

  • The porous nature of TPA causes it to absorb moisture easily and swell up, reducing its strength and making it susceptible to warping. 
  • TPA is highly prone to shrinkage during the cooling stage of the manufacturing process. Also, it prints best at slower print speeds and smaller layer heights. 

Thermoplastic Co-Polyester (TPC)

Thermoplastic copolyester (TPC) is a flexible material that can be modified to suit a project or application that requires unique mechanical properties in a range of temperatures.

It has high temperature resistance values and is well-suited to withstand the test of time in terms of wear and tear since it has been specially formulated to feature a high strength-to-weight ratio and temperature changes from (−40–140°C).

At the same time, its flexibility provides needed versatility for various products and general purpose applications – making it a great choice if a range of parts is being designed with varying levels of stiffness.

Pros

  • TPC offers various benefits, including durability, flexibility, layer adhesion, recyclability, and chemical resistance properties.
  • The versatility of the material makes it possible to create 3D models of a wide variety of objects layer by layer, and it also gives users more freedom in their artistic expression.
  • TPC’s melt flow properties allow for fast processing times and low distortion rates when the final product is produced at high speeds or high extrusion rates.

Cons

  • One issue with TPC is the high percentage of shrinkage that occurs when the material is heated and cooled, giving rise to variations in the size and shape of printed pieces.
  • TPC has a low glass transition temperature which means some parts become brittle if exposed to freezing temperatures – so it’s not ideal for outdoor use or other cold conditions.

Polylactic Acid (Soft PLA)

Soft PLA has all the strength and features of common PLA but with a softness that makes it perfect for heavy duty applications where flexibility and comfort are essential. Whether you need to create something from scratch or improve existing prints, Soft PLA gives you the resilience and durability you need as well as the versatility of being able to bend and shape your products.

This industrial-grade material is ideal for injection molding, medical equipment, household items, and much more. Its biodegradable nature adds another layer of sustainability without sacrificing performance.

Pros

  • Soft PLA is highly versatile and easy to use, as it can be printed with all types of standard 3D printers and requires no unique bed temperature, additional cooling fans or other print settings – making it ideal for newbies just getting started with 3D printing process.
  • When using Soft PLA, not only do you get quality surface finish, but you can also expect the colors to stay vibrant over time.
  • In terms of sustainability, soft PLA is highly popular because it uses bioplastics made from renewable sources like plants and cereal grains – meaning it’s an eco-friendly option for those conscious about the environment.
  • The rigidity, strength and visual quality of Soft PLA make it suitable for functional prototypes, and end-use parts.

Cons

  • Prints made with Soft PLA are likely to be brittle and may break easily under pressure
  • If prints made from soft PLA aren’t stored in ideal environmental conditions, they will eventually become warped and lose shape.

FAQs

What Is the Most Flexible Filament?

TPU, or thermoplastic polyurethane, is the most flexible 3D printing material. It is the ideal filament to use when you need a material to be both bendable and strong while maintaining detailed shapes and complexity.

Is It Hard to 3D Print From TPU?

Printing on TPU can be challenging due to the material’s peculiarities, but the resulting prints are exceptional and will survive the test of time.

Is TPU More Flexible Than PLA?

TPU is more flexible than PLA. TPU can be printed at lower temperatures and offers excellent tensile strength and abrasion resistance, making it a perfect choice for projects requiring a durable yet flexible result.

Which Is More Flexible, PLA or ABS?

PLA is more flexible and durable than ABS. PLA’s flexible nature allows it to adapt to its environment in ways that ABS can’t match while maintaining its strength and integrity.

Can You Operate 3D Print Without Plastic Filament?

Plastic filaments are the most common material for 3D printing, but in reality – you can print almost anything. It’s possible to print metal, wood, porcelain, paper, and even food items.

Conclusion

Flexibility is a critical component when selecting a suitable 3d printing material for certain critical design requirements. Flexible filaments for 3D printing will give you more freedom in your designs and bring a greater level of precision. You’ll also produce a high-quality part with fewer chances of breakage or warping.

In comparison to other 3D materials, TPU is the most flexible option for designs, and it is highly compatible with most 3D printers. Its superior resilience grants it a long lifespan which makes it perfect for models that require flexibility, weight-bearing capacity, water resistance, and long life spans.

Whether you’re creating custom spare parts with flexible features or a high-performing engineering component – TPU filaments are an ideal choice for all professional applications in the 3D printing industry.

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