Cheap Filament Is Just As Good

Filament is a lot like bottled water. Some bottled waters taste better than others, but if you are dying of thirst it doesn’t matter what brand you buy. So what makes Dasani taste better than Aquafina? The short answer is added minerals that are found in natural spring water. I once worked for a processing plant that bottled Aquafina. Where did they get the water? The city tap. Yep. They take regular old tap water and run it through a reverse osmosis filtering system, put it in a bottle, and sell 15.9 ounces of it to you for about $1.59 retail. The actual cost of the water in the bottle is less than a penny. The plastic bottle costs about 3 cents including the label and the cap. Dasani adds flavoring minerals that amount to less than a penny as well, but it’s also tap water.

    Many filament suppliers are actually selling what is known as a white-label product. They don’t actually make the filament, a plastic manufacturer does. A white-label manufacturer typically sells the exact same product to hundreds if not thousands of companies. The company selling the filament simply provides the manufacturer with a label design and shazam! XYZ-Brand filament is born. Heck, you can even have your own brand of filament. Want to start your own coffee company? They have a white-label manufacturer for that too. Probably every generic brand of cereal and even most name brands you have ever eaten are made in many of the same food processing factories. Some white-label companies may give you the option of altering the ingredients slightly, most do not. It’s more about who is better at marketing than geniune differences in the final product.

So what does all this mean? 

    For simplicity we are going to just talk about PLA filament. PLA is Polyactic Acid. It’s simply a type of plastic. While some expensive brands of PLA are great and easy to print with, so are some dirt cheap ones. However, some brands that have good ratings and have been around a while usually are easier to print with because they are very forgiving in their chemical structure, or the company selling them is really good at marketing. But that doesn’t mean the $25 spool is better than the $10 spool. It just means you might have to fine tune your settings to make the cheap stuff print just as good.

    Personally I very rarely spend more than $11 per kilogram on a spool of PLA unless I need something special like an exotic color, glow in the dark, silk, or rainbow (If I can’t find a generic equivalent). In Cura I create a custom profile with the brand name and color of the generic PLA and run several small test prints until I get it working great. Usually this amounts to less than 20-60 grams of wasted filament spent on ‘tuning’. Once I have the perfect profile made for the filament I purchased, I can buy that dirt cheap filament as much as I want, or while it’s on sale, or until it becomes popular and the price goes up. I’ll buy 5-10 1kg spools at a time and usually pay no more than $10 per spool with the shipping included. To me, PLA is PLA. The brand name is irrelevant.

I printed this to clean my soldering iron using filament that has no brand name and was only $9 per kilogram:

That's basically my stock settings. I could easily make it smoother with a few tweaks, but for the odd shape and lack of supports I think it came out quite well. And no, I did not print it in vase mode.

    A lot of the brands of filament that have been around a long time will have predefined profiles already in your slicing software. Often you can just select the correct profile and start printing, kinda. But it’s usually not quite that easy. Maybe you made several modifications to your printer (most of us do) and you still end up having to tweak the settings quite a bit (nozzle and bed temperature, retraction, walls, resolution) to get a particular filament to print well. Sometimes you have to create a separate but similar profile with a few small changes because the black filament prints fine with the stock settings, but the green filament does not even though the brand is exactly the same.

    That’s why I buy dirt cheap filament. I almost always have to create a profile for each brand and color regardless of price. If you take the time to learn to print with cheap filament you’ll save a lot of money. You’re going to eventually be doing it anyway. Did you get an all metal hot end with a heatbreak? You need to adjust a few print settings. Did you upgrade your cooling fans? You need to adjust a few print settings. Did you switch from a brass nozzle to a stainless steel nozzle? You need to adjust a few print settings. Did you change the stock bed to a magnetic flexible spring metal removable bed? You need to adjust a few print settings. Did you buy an expensive filament that has a profile in your slicing software, but the specific color or type (PLA+… total scam) isn’t? You need to adjust a few print settings.  

    As a side note, although I have many colors, I print almost everything in black, white, or grey. Grey I use when I plan on painting the object. Black for most electronics. White for most household items. It really simplifies things because black white and grey PLA and PETG print using nearly the same settings no matter what generic brand I buy.

    One thing you may want to avoid is cardboard spools. The friction of the cardboard causes the filament to snag more often. If you upgraded your spool holder to a 3D printed one that uses some sort of bearings so that the roller can spin freely, then this may not be an issue. Heck, even toilet paper dispensers spin in most places. 

    Below are some low cost brands of filament that I’ve printed with and had fantastic results. The prices shown were about $11 per kilogram spool when I posted them, but I have a Prime membership and they may have been on sale at the time. If you follow the links, you can always sort by price or scroll down to other recommended brands and find the cheap stuff. 

The moral of the story is to save your money. Spend it on worthy printer upgrades, which I will cover in another article. 

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Amazon: 10kg 3D Printer Filament


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