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In The Creative’s Guide to 3D Printing Filament I wrote that, in my opinion, the next wave of prosumer 3D printing evolution isn’t about the printers themselves, but the thermoplastic they use to make 3D prints, called filament. I’m not the only one thinking this, because in the last few years an enormous amount of companies have started producing 3D printing filament. Because of this, the choice of filament has exploded way beyond the obvious PLA and ABS.
One popular premium filament brand is ColorFabb, produced by Helian Polymers in The Netherlands. The brand was officially launched in 2013 and already offers a variety of different, innovative 3D printing filaments. When I contacted them about the possibilities of testing and reviewing their filament, they invited me for a factory tour. An interesting experience which I’m very excited about. In this post I’ll report on my visit to ColorFabb, to give you a sneak peak behind the scenes of making exciting premium filament.
ColorFabb moved into a new building recently in the Venlo, near the Dutch-German border. Their production facility is on the ground floor and their offices and testing facilities are on the highest floor, where I met with founder Ruud Rouleaux and industrial designer Gijs Houdijk. We drank a cup of coffee in the middle of tables filled with humming 3D printers. Among them models from MakerBot, Ultimaker and Leapfrog and a huge Delta Tower 3D printer. ColorFabb tests their filament on many different machines to advise both printer manufacturers and their own customers on ideal settings for each material.
As you can see above, ColorFabb offers many kinds and colors of filament. They’re divided in 4 categories:
PLA / PHA
A special blend of PLA with PHA, that makes it stronger and less brittle than pure PLA. PHA is also a bio-polyester, so the blend is still 100% biodegradable.
It’s available in a whopping 29 colors, including very unique ones like “Mint Turquoise” , “Greenish Beige” and the pictured “Sky Blue”.
ColorFabb XT filament is produced from Amphora 3D™ Polymer by Eastman Chemical Company, specifically for 3D printing. It’s tough, strong, prints odorless, is food contact compliant, has a higher temperature resistance and is both Styrene and BPA free. Available in crystal clear and 10 popular colors, including the red one above.
This line consists of blends of ColorFabb’s PLA/PHA and particles from other materials. The names speak for themselves: woodFill, bambooFill (shown), bronzeFill & copperFill. Plus a glow-in-the-dark filament aptly called glowFill.
Apart from spooled filament, ColorFabb recently started offering many of their filaments as pellets for people that either have an extruder to make their strings of filament, or have a 3D printer that works with pellets instead of spools.
Charlie and the Filament Factory
Although the idea of visiting a production facility where filament is made in 50 colors and many different flavors might sound like visiting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, it’s actually more like visiting Walter White’s Meth Lab from the TV Show Breaking Bad. Without the chemical suits and respirators, because most of ColorFabb’s filaments are almost odorless when heated. I can imagine it will smell like a like a lumber processing plant when they’re making woodFill.
Of course the filament creation process is a chemical process and, as I’ve explained in my Filament Guide, the quality – and thus the “premiumness” – of 3D printing plastic is largely influenced by two factors: the quality of the source material and the quality checks in the production process.
When ColorFabb started experimenting in 2012, their source materials fitted in the glass jars on the top shelves. Now it’s stored in many chemical containers like the ones above, each clearly labeled.
The source material is stored as pellets, so they can be weighted accurately before entering the production process.
ColorFabb has different production lines so it can produce different materials simultaneously. A computer controlled process dries the source materials to their optimal humidity before they’re sucked into mixer.
The mixer adds a very accurate amount of colored dye to the source materials, to create the many colors. This photograph was taken when they where producing a grey-ish filament. Next, the colored filament gets heated and extruded through a very well calibrated hole.
On his way to the spool, every millimeter of the filament thread is digitally measured. ColorFabb uses a very tiny maximum deviation of 50 micron (0.05 mm), so filament with a diameter of 1.75 mm will always be between 1.70 and 1.80 mm. In the photo above, you can see that the current thread is 1.768 in diameter, just 18 micron off! This not only prevents extruder jams, but is also essential for reliable 3D printing at small layer heights, because it ensures that the amount of filament that get’s extruded is consistent from bottom to top.
At the end of the production line, the filament is rolled onto ColorFabb’s iconic clear plastic spools at rapid speed.
Each spool is then vacuum-wrapped in plastic, to keep it free of moisture. Then they’re packed into ColorFabb’s boxes, which are wrapped in plastic again (they’re serious about their packaging!).
The spools are ordered in endless wall’s of boxes, ready to be shipped to a 3D Printing enthusiasts around the world. Depending on your location and the amount of spools you order, shipping becomes free pretty soon: for EU Countries it’s only necessary to order 4 or more spools (check the full table here).
I guess you have to order every available color if you want to receive one of these big boxes, but ColorFabb does offer a nice display box in the form of their Value Packs.
So now you know how ColorFabb’s 3D Printing Filament get’s made. But you might want to know if they’re any good, so…
Of course I didn’t drive 2 hours to the other end of Holland to go back empty-handed. I could make a fine selection of filaments to test, which I will do in separate posts. Because the readers of my Newsletter get all the scoops, they already know which spools I selected (subscribe here if you want scoops, too!), but I’ll announce them officially right now:
PLA / PHA Natural
Because of the addition of PHA, the color of this plastic is extra milky. It’s the favorite of ColorFabb’s industrial designer Gijs.
ColorFabb XT Orange
Because it’s Holland’s pride and I wanted to print Halloween Pumpkins (I already posted a picture on Instagram)
Because I’m curious about the effects of varying the print temperature on the color. And I like pandas.
This spools looks half-empty, but bronzeFill is 3 times heavier than PLA/PHA. I’m very curious about the possibilities of sanding and polishing bronze prints.
Send me your 3D Design and Get Featured
Because I already have a maker space filled with a clone army of Terminators, Yodas, Marvins and Owls, I would like to test with some unique 3D models! If you’ve designed one, please leave a link (to Thingiverse or similar sites) in the comments below and let me know which material you would like me to print it in. I’ll make a selection and will link to your design when I post the photos!
The very, very, very best design will also be Featured on the ColorFabb website!