Support materials: A beginner’s guide

Support materials play a significant role in 3D printing. They make it possible to create complex geometries without significantly affecting the aesthetics of the final printed product. There are a variety of support materials to choose from, each with different advantages.

Why are support materials important?

With FFF (fused filament fabrication) 3D printing, objects are created in layers, from bottom to top. Melted filament passes through the 3D printer’s extruder and builds the printed item, layer by layer. Each new layer requires the layer underneath to support it.

Issues arise when a print design requires an overhang, or an element that’s suspended in mid-air. This is where support materials can help. They create a “prop,” on which the melted filament can be placed. The support material is removed once the print is complete, leaving the printed material intact and in the correct position.

This offers far greater design freedom, enabling the creation of complex geometries, with very few restrictions.

Common uses of support materials

Support materials enable you to create more complicated parts. Architects, for example, can 3D print bolder conceptual designs. Engineers and designers have complete freedom in their designs and are not subjected to the limitations of traditional manufacturing methods, such as milling or molding. Manufacturing aids (such as tools, jigs and fixtures) can be customized to specific tasks. Even complex models with separately moving parts can be printed in one go.

What else should you know?

Basic build material support. If you’re using a single extrusion 3D printer, you will need to create supports with the material your are printing your model in. This is because single extrusion printers can only print with one material at a time. This means your support will adhere well to the model. Prints are also less likely to fail, as there are no compatibility issues. However, it’s more difficult to remove the support material post-print, and the surface quality may be adversely affected.

Breakaway support material. Manually removable support materials, like Ultimaker Breakaway, tend to be used by those printing with dual extrusion 3D printers. They’re a different material to the filament used to create the printed model, easy to remove, and reduce impact on surface quality. However, when you’re working with these support materials, consider compatibility. Specific support materials adhere more effectively to some build materials than others.

This table details which materials are compatible with our Breakaway support material:

✓ Officially supported ⓘ Experimental ✕ Not supported

Soluble support material. Soluble support materials are a popular option for dual extrusion 3D printing. These supports dissolve in water, which means they don’t adversely affect surface quality. They also offer exceptional design freedom. Soluble support material is the favored option for printing moving assemblies or precision end-use parts.

Support blockers. Sometimes, support material is added in holes that could be printed just as well without it. Surface quality is also less important on some parts of a model than others. In these instances, using the ‘support blockers’ function in Ultimaker Cura is highly effective.

Functionality testing. Always check that your supports can be reached, so they can be easily removed once the print is complete. For example, a section of support that’s stuck inside your model may limit its functionality.

PVA. PVA is the most commonly used soluble support material. It dissolves quickly in water

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