Jul 27, 2018

TPE Filament – Explained and Compared

Hailed as 3D printable rubber, flexible filaments like TPE are as squishy, stretchy, and rubbery as it gets. Here, we've broken down what TPE is good for, how to print it, and the purchase options that are available.

TPE Explained

TPE, or thermoplastic elastomer, is a category of rubberlike plastics that are helpful for anything that needs impact or vibration resistance, non-slip characteristics, or just plain old flexibility. Used in dampeners, non-slip feet, phone cases, and the like, TPE deforms and compresses easily to counter loads, making it incredibly durable. Although sometimes tricky to print with, the results are often well worth the struggle.  

General Printing Tips and Settings

  • Nozzle Temperature: 210 – 230 ºC (varies)
  • Bed Temperature: Unheated – 70 ºC (varies)
  • Print Speeds: 5 – 30 mm/s 
  • Retraction: minimize or disable 
  • Bed Adhesion: painter’s tape, glue stick, or hairspray recommended

Being flexible, TPE has a tendency to buckle or squeeze through any gaps in the filament path. Make sure that the filament path is well-constrained, with no gaps or obstacles. A direct-drive style extruder is recommended. 

Retraction does not work well with TPE due to its ability to stretch and compress. Disabling retraction is recommended.

Some TPE is known to adhere too well to print surfaces. Use painter’s tape, glue stick, or hairspray as a protective release agent. 

Storage

TPE filaments are known to be hygroscopic, which means that they absorb moisture from the air. This can degrade the material, so any filament not in use should be stored in a low humidity environment. An airtight container or bag with desiccant packs should do the job. 

TPE? TPU?

TPU, or thermoplastic polyurethane, is another common flexible material and is easily confused with TPE. So what’s the difference between the two? A typical explanation is that TPE is softer and trickier to print with, while TPU is firmer and prints more like PETG. 

However, TPE isn’t really a specific material. It refers to a range of elastic thermoplastics, of which TPU is a type. This can be confusing, as the two terms are often used rather loosely when marketing filaments. Recently, “TPU”, both as a term and as a material, has been gaining popularity over “TPE”. 

To avoid the confusion, this guide will differentiate the materials based on technical hardness ratings. Flexibles rated at 90A hardness or below will be considered TPE, even if the material is TPU-based.

More common, easier to print: TPU Filament Explained and Compared

Best Overall: NinjaFlex

Loved by thousands around the world, Ninjatek’s NinjaFlex has made quite a name for itself in the 3D printing universe. It’s satisfyingly soft, squishy, and non-slip: great for phone cases, dampeners, or even shoes! Although it’s based on TPU material, its 85A hardness puts it in the range of TPE-softness. 

For the premium price, you’re getting premium colors and premium printability (for a flexible, at least). A tried and tested choice, NinjaFlex easily earns its spot as our top choice. 

NinjaTek NinjaFlex TPU Filament

show product

FilaFlex is the “flagship in the fashion world”, or so its company claims. Made by Spanish-based Recreus, FilaFlex has been a long contender in the world of flexibles, albeit not as widely available. 

On paper, Filaflex is very similar to NinjaFlex: slightly softer, at 82A, and marginally cheaper by weight. What sets it apart is its wide range of colors, like the “Clear Pink” option shown above. Beware, though: FilaFlex has more stretch than most, so extrusion can be tricky. 

FilaFlex 82A Original

show product

Honorable Mention: FilaFlex 70A Ultra-Soft

Landing an honorable mention is FilaFlex’s 70A Ultra-Soft. This stuff is no joke: Tailored towards wearables and the shoe industry, it’s 70A hardness (or rather, extreme softness) puts it far out on the frontiers of consumer 3D printing. For the ambitious only, the FilaFlex 70A Ultra-Soft is sure to get you one-of-a-kind results. 

This filament is only vailable in Clear 2.85mm diameter from Recreus.

Where Does that Leave Me?

In many ways, generic TPE has fallen under the shadow of newer TPU variants. Its extra softness has outdone many, and purchase options have plunged in number. But sometimes, you just need the extra softness and springiness that harder TPU just can’t offer. That is when TPE shines. 

If you’re feeling extra flexible (and brave), TPE’s squish and stretch will not disappoint. 

License: The text of "TPE Filament – Explained and Compared" by All3DP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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