The Guide to Polycarbonate 3D Printing

3D Printed Polycarbonate Sample Parts

What is Polycarbonate?

Polycarbonate is a thermoplastic that is most prominently known for its incredible strength and impact resistance. The basis of bulletproof glass, polycarbonate is lightweight and exhibits a translucency that is superior to other Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) 3D printing materials. Polycarbonate also boasts heat resistance, is flame-retardant, and insulates electricity, making it essential to use in electrical components and hardware.

Polycarbonate is extremely durable and highly effective for a wide range of professional-level applications:

  • Widely used in the construction, transportation, and automotive industries
  • Electrical and telecommunications hardware
  • Data storage, such as CDs, DVDs, and Blu-Ray Discs
  • Consumer products like sunglasses, phone and computer cases, water bottles, and food containers

Polycarbonate: The Strongest 3D-Printing Material

When it comes to strength, polycarbonate truly is the “king” of 3D printer filament, dramatically out-performing other materials in strength tests. In an informal material strength test, Airwolf 3D printed a series of hooks using a variety of 3D printing materials: ABS, PLA, Nylon 910, and polycarbonate. Each material was then tested by loading the hook with weight until it fractured. Polycarbonate won by a landslide.

PLA has a tensile strength of 7,250 psi and was able to lift 285 pounds. In comparison, ABS has a tensile strength of 4,700 psi and snapped instantly under 285 pounds of weight. Polycarbonate, on the other hand, has a tensile strength of 9,800 psi and lifted a whopping 685 pounds — far more than any of the other materials that were tested.

Using 3D-Printed Polycarbonate for Production Parts

Historically, there has been a great deal of hesitance when it comes to making fully functional, end-use parts out of 3D-printed materials. For example, most parts made from commonly used 3D printing materials simply are not strong enough for safety-critical automotive components. The advent of 3D printing in polycarbonate, however, has initiated a paradigm shift.

3D Printing Polycarbonate for Automotive Use
A replacement bypass pipe was 3D printed out of polycarbonate and used to repair a leaking heater core on one of Airwolf 3D’s project cars, the Mustang 5.0.

With the incredible strength of polycarbonate as described above, along with significant developments in 3D printing technology, such as a better understanding and employment of thermal management and innovations in bed adhesion, users are now empowered to create extremely strong functional parts for end-use applications.

The ability to 3D print polycarbonate also has revolutionized the rapid prototyping process as prototypes for polycarbonate parts can now be created in the same material as the end-use part. Even if a production part’s final iteration will be injection-molded, 3D printing in polycarbonate allows quick design changes, a more efficient method of testing, and an easier, money-saving way to create a new prototype virtually immediately.

HOW TO 3D PRINT WITH POLYCARBONATE

With all of the material’s superior qualities, why doesn’t everyone print everything in polycarbonate? To put it simply, polycarbonate is not an easy material with which to work. Successfully printing the material starts with high-quality polycarbonate filament and requires both a high-performance desktop 3D printer capable of printing and managing high-temperature materials and an effective method of bed adhesion to prevent warpage.

Choose High-Quality Polycarbonate Filament

As with any other material, it is critical that you choose a high-quality filament when printing with polycarbonate. While a spool of filament might look flawless on the outside and carry a budget-friendly price tag, beware of cheap materials. Manufacturers of low-quality filament are able to keep their prices down by producing their filament with additives and fillers, the addition of which negatively affects the 3D printing experience and the quality of the final part. Inferior product is also less expensive because it often has air pockets or debris embedded in it — a problem that could clog or jam nozzles and ruin a print.

Best PC 3D Printer Filament
Airwolf 3D began manufacturing its own line of polycarbonate 3D printer filament to ensure high quality and perfect compatibility with Airwolf 3D printers.

Furthermore, manufacturers who cut corners to save time or are careless with their production methods tend to make filament that is extruded at lighter tolerances. As a result, inconsistent diameters will cause over- or under-extrusion, creating blobs and imperfections in the final print.

When choosing an engineering-grade polycarbonate filament, make sure to buy from a trusted source. Know where the manufacturing facility is located and inquire about their quality control process. Is the filament pure or does it contain additives? If possible, try to procure a sample or at the very least study photos of sample prints to try to assess the filament’s quality. The ideal polycarbonate filament will deliver easy printability, structural integrity, and a beautiful finish.

Choose the right 3D printer

When it comes to 3D printing in polycarbonate, you must choose a 3D printer that adeptly handles high temperatures. In addition to having a high temperature hot end and heated bed, a 3D printer with an enclosed build chamber is essential for printing polycarbonate plastic.

Polycarbonate 3D Printer
Airwolf 3D developed the first commercial desktop 3D printer to print in polycarbonate and later fully optimized the process with the AXIOM Series of 3D printers.

One of the greatest barriers to entry when 3D printing in polycarbonate is simply having a 3D printer that effectively reaches high enough temperatures for extruding the high-temperature material. There are not a lot of machines under $50,000 that effectively achieve this.

Successfully printing in polycarbonate requires a hot end that reaches temperatures of 290 to 315 degrees Celsius. Your print bed temperature must be able to reach 140 to 145 degrees Celsius.

Enclosed Build Chamber

When it comes to 3D printing in Polycarbonate, you not only need a printer that reaches the requisite high extruder and bed temperatures, but also an enclosed print chamber to manage the heat and prevent imperfections in the printed part, such as cracking and deformation.

Having a closed print environment becomes even more critical when you are printing large parts. The bigger your print, the less you are able to rely simply on the bed’s heat to maintain a stable ambient printer temperature. To keep the entire part warm and prevent the cracking that comes with premature cooling, you must achieve proper thermal management by employing a high-performance enclosure like the signature patented build chamber of any AXIOM series printer.

Bed Adhesion

In addition to heat management, the other critical factor when printing in polycarbonate is proper bed adhesion. In the 3D printing world, bed adhesion for polycarbonate is the number one challenge that most users face when attempting to print in the high-performance material. Polycarbonate is among the most finicky 3D printing materials because it has a high tendency to shrink and warp, making strong bed adhesion essential for successfully printing in the material.

Hobbyists have done some experimentation with bed adhesion, but with little success. Solutions range from household items like gluesticks and hairspray to toxic slurries and even super glue — an only moderately effective option that is practically guaranteed to break your glass. In the end, almost every solution was messy, dangerous, or destructive and a waste of money.

Seeing the need for a safe, highly effective way to get polycarbonate to stick to a glass print bed, Airwolf 3D formulated Wolfbite Mega. A liquid bed adhesion solution, Wolfbite Mega creates a heat-activated film on your glass plate. While printing, the solution strongly bonds the polycarbonate print to the glass. Once the print is complete and cooled, the bed adhesion solution automatically deactivates, allowing the part to simply release from the bed — no pulling, scraping, or cutting required.

To use Wolfbite Mega, simply apply a coat of the solution on your glass print bed before starting your polycarbonate print. Like all Wolfbite formulas, Wolfbite Mega is non-toxic and environmentally safe to wash down the drain.

The easiest, most effective way to 3D print polycarbonate

As outlined above, the essential factors for printing in polycarbonate are:

  • A high-temperature hot end and heated print bed
  • Enclosed build chamber
  • Effective bed adhesion

As innovators of the first commercial desktop 3d printer to print in polycarbonate, Airwolf 3D largely has built its reputation on the fact that we build the only 3D printers in their price range to print polycarbonate and other “difficult” materials successfully.

The AXIOM All-in-One System is the easiest solution to getting started printing in polycarbonate as quickly and easily as possible. Complete with an AXIOM Dual 3D printer, Airwolf 3D’s signature high-performance polycarbonate filament, Wolfbite Mega, and a host of other 3D printing filament and accessories for professional use, The AXIOM All-in-One System has everything you need to implement 3D printing into your workflow.

For more information, including a solution customized for your organization, please contact us at (949)478-2933 or info@airwolf3d.com.