TPU vs. TPE Printing: Head-to-Head Comparison

If you’ve ever found yourself debating the relative merits of TPU vs. TPE printing for your next project, you’ll no doubt appreciate what an uphill battle it can sometimes seem to be when it comes to determining the right one for you.

After all, both are excellent materials for printing rubber-like components such as footwear soles, panels, and other essentials, and at first glance, it can seem like the two are pretty much equal.

Adding to the confusion, TPU is actually a particular type of TPE. This small but significant fact can make it even more baffling in selecting the best material to use.

If this is a problem you’re currently facing, the following guide is for you.

Below, we break down the differences between TPU and TPE and outline everything you need to know to determine what to use for your next 3D printing design.

What is TPE?

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The letters TPE stand for Thermoplastic Elastomer, meaning it combines various properties of plastic with rubber to create a strong, flexible, and malleable material without being permanently altered by any pressure or stretching placed upon it.

Although it offers many benefits, particularly its strength, resistance to chemicals, and suitability for all types of products, it’s also pretty expensive and not all that beginner-friendly.

What is TPU?

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TPU stands for Thermoplastic Polyurethane, a type of polyurethane material that more closely resembles natural rubber than TPE does.

It’s known to be highly adaptable in terms of its finishing properties, capable of being set to create a firm, hard finish or a softer, rubber-like finish that offers a little more give.

TPU is also said to be better for newcomers as it’s generally easier to use. However, the need to ensure pinpoint precision when using this material can lead to beginners making more mistakes than they would with other printing options such as nylon filaments.

What’s more, while TPU can generally be found at a lower rate than TPE, it’s still a pretty expensive option.

TPU vs. TPE Printing: Applications, Performance and Ease-of use

Now we know a little bit about both printing filaments, it’s time to dive a little deeper and take a look at how the two actually stack up in terms of all the things that really make a difference when choosing which material to use with your 3D printer.

Uses

Both TPU and TPE are used for a vast array of different products, though each one’s unique properties make them better suited for some designs more than others.

TPU’s high level of resistance to grease and solvents, for example, makes it a popular choice in building automobiles, affording manufacturers an enhanced level of durability that doesn’t come at the expense of flexibility.

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Its firm-yet-pliable form also makes it highly regarded in the medical industry, where it’s widely used to create orthopedic equipment.

In more common day-to-day use, you’re most likely to find TPU used in the soles of your favorite shoes or in any number of power tools that you may have in your garage.

Meanwhile, TPE is also commonly one of the go-to materials in the automotive and medical industries. Its rubber-type properties prove the ideal material for creating the dashboard panels in your car, dental guards, and more.

Look around your home, and you may have everything from toothbrushes and hairbrushes to hammers, plastic spoons, and headphone cables, all made from TPE material.

 

Printing

TPU can be used in either Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) or Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), providing, of course, that you have a printer set up to handle those types of printing.

With FDM, the main advantage is that you can print TPU-based models pretty quickly. However, this enhanced speed may come at the cost of a smooth finish, with some makers put off by the fact that individual print layers can often appear pretty prominently in the finished product.

On the plus side, FDM also results in super-strong adhesion between those layers, making it a better choice for those projects where durability and practicality take precedence over the aesthetic appeal.

With SLS, some TPU filaments can be used to create flexible and malleable components, which are still highly durable, making them suitable for electronic components and mechanical projects.

SLS also has the bonus that you don’t need any support structures to print, so there’s no need to grapple the end product out of its supports and no unsightly removable marks to take care of.

TPE can likewise be used with either FDM or SLS printing processes, with the latter in particular often proving to be the most affordable -though still relatively expensive- option.

Flexibility

One of the main reasons why most makers look to TPU or TPE for their 3D printing is the level of flexibility they offer.

Of the two, it has to be said that TPE generally offers a much greater degree of elasticity than TPU.

Both robust and malleable, TPE can be stretched, bent, and pressed down upon yet will always return ideally to its original state afterward.

TPU will likewise offer a good deal of elasticity, though not to the same extent, and is generally preferred for those models that require more strength and stability than flexibility.

Ease of Use

There’s no denying the fact that printing with either material can be tricky, especially if you’re just getting started.

Both require an intense level of precision, and mistakes are more frequent than with resin or other filaments.

If we had to pick just one to declare the easiest, we’d go with TPU as it’s the more stable of the two, though it may be wise to avoid using either until you’ve spent a little more time mastering the nuances of your 3D printer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is TPE toxic to print?

TPE and TPU are both non-toxic materials that are not dangerous to use in 3D printing.

Is TPU hard to print?

In fairness, TPU is more straightforward to print than TPE as it is more stable and is better at keeping its elasticity even when printed at lower temperatures. However, it is still more challenging to use than other filaments.

Does TPU absorb water?

Yes. TPU’s hygroscopic properties result in it absorbing moisture, which means it’s best to keep it in a dry, secure container when not in use.

TPU vs. TPE: The Final Verdict

Given that TPU is essentially a specific type of TPE, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of similarities between the two.

Both are elastic, durable, and have a wide range of properties, though both are also relatively expensive and difficult to work with.

If you do decide to work with just one, TPE will be the perfect choice if you want something that offers the highest levels of elasticity and flexibility, while TPU may be the better option if you want something that’s going to be stable, sturdy, and easier to work with.