5 Best 3D Printers for Flexible Filament in 2022

Everyone loves a fun 3D print, but what if it wasn’t so… boring? 

It’s no doubt that flexible 3D prints have an “awe” effect, but they also prove to be very practical in some scenarios, like for a phone case, due to their bend-ability and impact resistance. You can 3D print flexible parts with flexible filament, like TPU or TPE, but you’ll also need the right 3D printer to ensure your prints are high quality.

So, are you ready to take a less rigid approach to 3D printing? If so, read on for our review of the best 3D printers for printing flexible filaments!

Why Is a Direct Drive Extruder ideal for Flexible Filament?

Before we dive into the printers and reviews, you might be wondering what makes a printer good for printing flexible materials. Well, there are a few factors, such as the machine’s temperature capabilities, the quality of the parts used, and the typical quality of prints made with the printer. However, the most important feature a printer for flexible filaments must have is a direct drive extruder.

Direct drive extruder configurations involve placing the extruder stepper motor directly over the hot end, where the filament is melted. This gives the inserted flexible filament less room to stretch or bend, reducing the chances of a nozzle jam, so your prints don’t fail. This type of extruder is the alternative to the Bowden-drive extrusion system, which involves the extruder motor separated from the hot end by a PTFE tube. 

Most consumer-grade 3D printers have Bowden-drive extruders as its cheaper to manufacture and less complicated to work with. The less precise extrusion associated with Bowden-drive extruders makes it the inferior extruder configuration for printing flexible filaments.

Now, lets’ get into the best 3D printers!

3D Printer Type: FDM | Materials: PLA, TPU, PETG, ABS | Build Volume: 220 x 220 x 270 mm

First up, we have an all-around hard hitting 3D printing machine: the Ender 3 S1. Developed by Creality, one of the most popular 3D printer manufacturers, the Ender 3 S1 is the latest interaction in the Ender 3 series. The printer has many new features that were previously optional upgrades on older versions of the Ender 3 (original, Pro, V2), making it a great printer for flexible filaments.

Most important, the Ender 3 S1 is the first printer to feature Creality’s new Sprite extruder. The Sprite is a powerful and compact direct drive extruder with a 3.5:1 gear ratio that allows it to precisely and forcefully push filament through the hot end. The Sprite has dual drive gears that put a tighter grasp on the inserted filament, further improving the pushing power and precision of the extruder, while preventing the filament from bending around the extruder and causing a print failure.

The Ender 3 S1 has a spring-steel build plate that offers both flexibility and magnetism for easy part removal and bed re-attachment to the printer. The build plate’s surface has a PEI coating too for its top surface layer, and your TPU prints, especially the first layer, should adhere to this surface very well.

The S1 also has Creality’s new CR-Touch device, an automatic bed leveling sensor that can help keep your nozzle an equal distance above the bed, so your first layer comes out great. Other important features on the printer include belt tensioners to prevent layer shifting on prints, an easy-to-use LCD and interface, an onboard filament runout sensor to detect if your flexible filament has run out or isn’t flowing, and more.

Despite having as many, or more, features than some above-$1,000 printers, the Ender 3 S1 comes with a pretty affordable price tag of just $429, making the printer a total bargain and an obvious choice for the best value printer when it comes to printing flexible filaments. Of course, at this price, the Ender 3 S1 isn’t the cheapest printer on the list, but, we recommend it for those with a little extra in their 3D printer budget who want the biggest bang for their buck

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3D Printer Type: FDM | Materials: PLA, ABS, TPU, TPE, PETG, Wood, Copper | Build Volume: 230 x 150 x 140 mm

Need to print two filaments at once or simply don’t want to go through the annoying process of changing out your filament every time you want to print a different filament? Well, one company has forged (hint, hint) the ultimate machine for you: the Flashforge Creator Pro. This machine is the Pro version of the standard Creator printer from Flashforge and is packed with features that make it deserving of our pick for the best printer for printing flexible filament.

As we mentioned, this machine allows you to print two filaments at once and this is possible through its dual-extruder system. Moreover, the Creator Pro has a wider printhead that has not one, but two hot ends and a separate extruder for each to allow you to print dual-color models without any extra attachments of manual filament swaps. Alternatively, you can take advantage of the dual extruders to avoid having to switch filaments every time you want to print a flexible material.

On this note about the flexibles, the Creator Pro is well suited for printing this type of filament due to its dual direct drive configuration. Moreover, both hot ends have their own extruder directly above which makes printing flexibles easier and reduces the risk of print failure.

Now, you may be thinking “with two direct drive extruders and hot ends, the printhead is probably too heavy to move fast”. Well, don’t you worry because Flashforge has used lightweight components on the printhead to allow for print speeds around 100 mm/s (super fast).

It’s also worth mentioning that the Creator Pro has a moderately-high maximum nozzle temperature of 240 °C with a maximum bed temperature of 120 °C. These temperatures are easily enough to print most flexible filaments, but another added benefit is that the Creator Pro has an integrated enclosure. This should keep the ambient temperature around prints consistently warm, which often yields higher-quality prints and will allow you to print temperature-sensitive materials like ABS and ASA.

One of the best parts about the Creator Pro is its cost of just $450, which is surprisingly low for a dual-extruder printer. Because designing and preparing models for dual-extrusion 3D printing can be difficult, we think the Flashforge Creator Pro is best suited for users with some experience with 3D printing or those really wanting dual-color or dual-material prints. However, as the printer has a single extruder mode and many other great features like an integrated enclosure, it’s also a great option for beginners.

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3D Printer Type: FDM | Materials: PLA, ABS, PETG, Nylon | Build Volume: 254 x 152 x 170 mm

Our premium choice for a 3D printer for printing flexible filament is the DigiLab 3D45-01, developed by Dremel, the manufacturer of rotary tools and other power tools. The machine costs a pretty penny with a price tag of around $2,000 but has some features not typically included on consumer printers.

First off, the printer is enclosed with a transparent acrylic panel at the front to trap heat while still letting you monitor your printer. The enclosure should increase the print quality of models and it will allow you to print temperature-sensitive filaments like ABS. On a related note, the printer can also hit a maximum bed temperature of 100 °C, which is suitable for these materials.

When it comes to printing flexible filaments, the DigiLab 3D45 is a great choice due to its compact printhead assembly, comprised of a direct drive extruder above a high-temperature hot end. Moreover, the nozzle goes up to 280 °C, which is more than enough for flexibles like thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the printhead has a few fans and a well-designed fan duct pointed towards the nozzle to provide excellent part cooling that can significantly improve the quality of prints.

One of the more unique features of the 3D45 is the camera located in the top corner of the printer’s frame. The camera is hooked up to DigiLab’s onboard computer so you can monitor your printer’s ongoing print jobs remotely to ensure everything is running smoothly.

The DigiLab also has a built-in NFC chip reader on the filament spool holder that monitors and tracks your filament usage. While your printer knowing extra information about the spool you’re using, like how much is left or the color, can be helpful, this system also forces you to use only filament spools manufactured by Dremel. Dremel sells a variety of high-quality filaments, including a flexible material, and there are also available slicer profiles for each filament that are fine-tuned to the 3D45 for maximum print quality.

Overall, the Dremel DigiLab 3D45 is an amazing machine for printing flexible filaments, especially if you have a little extra dough to spend for the added features on the printer, like the webcam, enclosure, and high-temperature hot end.

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3D Printer Type: FDM | Materials: PLA, ABS, TPU, HIPS, PETG, Wood | Build Volume: 280 x 240 x 300 mm

Sovol is a lesser-known manufacturer of 3D printers that started to gain popularity with their hit printer, the SV01. The SV01 is a mid-to-large-size 3D printer boasting a generous build volume of 280 x 240 x 300 mm. 

The reason we included the SV01, though, isn’t only for its decent print size and direct drive extruder that should make printing flexible filaments a breeze. The main reason the SV01 performs well with flexibles is due to its Titan-style extruder, inspired by E3D’s Titan extruder. The Titan extruder features a quick-release lever for speedy filament changes and uses a standard NEMA-17 stepper motor attached that makes the assembly rather large, but ensures a lack of extruder power is never an issue.

On this note about extrusion power, the SV01’s Titan extruder has a 3:1 gear ratio that should forcefully push filament through the hot end underneath the extruder. Onboard the printhead is also a large 5050 part cooling fan with a fan duct pointed towards the nozzle for maximum cooling of the filament flowing out of the nozzle. The high pushing force from the extruder combined with the direct drive configuration and powerful cooling fan all make for an ideal machine for printing flexible filaments.

Besides the extruder and printhead assembly, the SV01 has many small features that are very desirable among 3D printing enthusiasts, such as a filament runout sensor. This sensor, while very small, can be a lifesaver at times because it will pause your current print once it detects that you’ve run out of filament. Then, you can load a new spool in, looping it through the sensor, and resume your print right where it left off.

Sovol used two Z-axis stepper motors for reliable motion across the Z-axis, which will make the printer more precise in its movement and also prevent certain printing issues like Z-axis sagging. We also can’t forget about the tempered glass build plate, which parts will stick to when heated and pop off from when cooled.

The SV01 also has a wide, two-color LCD display with a Marlin-based graphical user interface that should make operating the machine easy. The screen is powered by Sovol’s own 3D printer motherboard which has a few additional ports for the optional upgrades that Sovol offers, such as an automatic bed leveling device. Other optional upgrades that are very easy to install on the SV01 are: 

  • A full-color LCD screen
  • Amagnetic flexible build plate
  • A silent motherboard with better stepper motor drivers for decreased noise.

The SV01 is a great option for a flexible filament printer for many reasons like its powerful Titan extruder and filament runout sensor. On top of this, the easy-to-use LCD and interface along with the many optional upgrades that Sovol offers for the printer make the SV01 a great option for beginners

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3D Printer Type: FDM | Materials: PLA, ABS, TPU | Build Volume: 300 x 300 x 400 mm

Another hit classic from Creality is the CR-10 V3, the third version of their popular original CR-10 printer. While the V3 is packed with some great features, the most obvious benefit of the printer is its MASSIVE build volume of 300 x 300 x 400 mm. With this much space, you can print basically any model you want, from small gadgets to ginormous cosplay items.

After you find the right place to put this huge 3D printer, you may be worried if the printer is stable enough to function properly and safely. The answer is a big yes and Creality has added support rods that connect the different gantries on the printer to ensure it doesn’t ever tilt or become unstable. This not only keeps the printer and the room it’s located in safe but also improves the print quality of the CR-10 V3 because there will be less interference with the printing process (e.g. vibrations). 

The CR-10 V3, like Creality’s Ender 3 S1, has a direct drive extruder, but it’s closer in design to the extruder on the Sovol SV01 than the Sprite extruder on the Ender 3 S1. Moreover, the CR-10 V3’s printhead is fairly large and uses a Titan extruder turned by a beefy stepper motor. Due to the Titan extruder’s 3:1 gear ratio and direct drive configuration, flexible filaments should print like a charm with minimal extrusion defects like stringing.

The V3’s motherboard is another important feature on the CR-10 V3, equipped with TMC2208 drivers that quiet the machine’s noise. There are also many extra ports on the board to support the machine’s wide array of electronic features. For example, there’s an extra stepper motor port to allow the V3 to use two Z-axis motors, ensuring more precise and stable motion across the printer’s large frame.

Additionally, there’s a port for a BLTouch sensor, which is an automatic bed leveling sensor. The sensor measures the distance between the nozzle and the build plate and adjusts the printhead’s height so that every print’s first layer comes out well. There are also ports for a filament runout sensor and dual cooling fans so the machine can pause a print when filament runs out and layers will solidify faster once extruded so models turn out more detailed.

As for the build plate,  the CR-10 V3 has a standard Creality tempered glass bed. The bed isn’t flexible or magnetic, but it has a slightly bumpy glass surface that plastic adheres to easily when heated. However, once the build plate cools, prints pop right off without the need for hot water or much pushing on the print.

The Creality CR-10 V3 is an obvious choice if you’re looking to print large flexible models. But the CR-10 V3 is much more than just a large-format 3D printer and its Titan direct drive extruder, onboard BLTouch device, filament runout sensor, and dual Z-axis motors yield exceptional print quality, especially for prints in flexible filaments.

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What are the Benefits of Using 3D Printers with Flexible Filaments?

There are many benefits to 3D printing with flexible filaments, but the most obvious one is that flexible models are simply cooler and more fun than traditional, rigid models. With the right 3D printer, you can make custom models that can bend and stretch while still being decently strong.

However, fun and games aren’t the only benefits of using flexible filaments and this type of material also has many more professional applications. Due to their semi-flexibility, flexible filaments are naturally great impact resistors. As such, flexible materials are great for printing components that travel at high rates of speed and face a lot of stress, such as a GoPro mount on a drone.

Flexible filaments are also useful for printing parts that interact with electronics. As a thermoplastic, flexible filaments aren’t conductive and won’t put any physical stress on most electronics parts, like circuit boards, because the printed model can easily bend.

Finally, another benefit of printing with flexible filaments is that they are not too challenging to print as long as you have the right type of printer (direct drive), which we talked about earlier. Flexible filaments don’t require super high temperatures (nozzle and bed), meaning they can work on most direct drive machines.

What are the Flexible Filaments?

As you probably guessed, flexible filaments are like a typical filament (a plastic in a stringed form), but are less tense and can stretch and bend easier. For consume-grade 3D printers, there are two main flexible filament materials, including TPU and TPE.

First, thermoplastic polyurethane, commonly abbreviated as TPU, is the most popular flexible filament material. Out of TPU and TPE, the former is the newer material and it’s also a better option for 3D printing because it’s easier to print, requiring lower nozzle and bed temperatures than TPE.

As for the flexibility, TPE filaments tend to be more bendable and stretchy than TPU filaments, but this can depend on the specific spool and manufacturer of the filament. When choosing what filament to use, make sure to look at the Shore hardness level of the filament. The lower the number and closer-to-the-beginning (lower) the letter in the rating, the more flexible the filament. Lastly, both TPU and TPE filaments cost about the same, ranging from $30-60 per kilogram spool.

What are the Challenges in Printing Flexible Filaments?

As we’ve explained, printing flexible filaments aren’t too difficult, but it’s definitely more challenging than using more traditional filament materials, like PLA or PETG. The first challenge with printing flexible filament is the extrusion system. To point out yet again (because it’s so very important), you basically need a direct drive printer to be able to print flexible filament while maintaining decent print quality.

However, there are a few other challenges with printing materials like TPU or TPE too. For example, you have to disable retractions on your slicer profile. In turn this usually results in some stringing and over-extrusion on models, but it’s necessary because any retraction moves on the extruder will cause the hot end to jam.

Another disadvantage is that flexible filaments need to be printed with a very slow print speed. That’s because the stretchy filament is sensitive to its extrusion and pushing it out of the hot end too fast will result in significantly reduced print quality. A speed around 20-30 mm/s should work, but you might have to go even lower than 20 mm/s to achieve high-quality prints.

Best 3D Prints for Flexible Filament? What Can You Print?

So, let’s say you’ve got your 3D printer, some flexible filament, and are ready to print a few flexible models. If you’re wondering what to print, look no further!

There are many great models you can 3D print in a flexible filament that will leave you astounded by how useful and fun flexible filaments really are. Below, we’ve listed a few different 3D models and projects that you work great with when printing a flexible material:

  • Wallet: Need a place to store some cash or cards? This wallet is a great option and you can print it in a flexible filament to make it easily foldable and portable.
  • Vibration Damper: 3D printers, and other machines, can be pretty loud. Take advantage of the vibration absorption of flexible filaments by printing these vibration dampers that go on the bottom of your 3D printer.
  • GoPro Case: If you’re into flying drones, then you probably have a GoPro camera attached to your flying machine. You can 3D print this GoPro drone case in a flexible filament to surround your expensive camera in an impact-resistant material so it stays safe and secure.
  • Pet toy: Want a fun way to play with your furry friend? This toy can be printed in a flexible filament and will keep you and your pet entertained for hours on end! 

Conclusion

There are hundreds of different 3D printers on the market, but not everyone is best for printing flexible materials. If you want to be able to print bendy, stretchy, flexible 3D models, make sure you get a printer that’s more than capable of printing these materials. The 3D printers we’ve reviewed on this list are some of the best options out there, but each one is best for a certain type of user.

First, if you’re looking for a good deal on a 3D printer that’s packed with features, the Ender 3 S1 is the one for you. However, if you have some extra money and want even more operation and printing performance features, we suggest the Flashforge Creator Pro, which is a dual-extrusion printer that allows you to print with multiple filaments at once.

Next, if you’re not worried about the budget, then the Dremel DigiLab 3D45 is an excellent choice that brings together a compact printhead assembly with some extra features like a camera. And, if you’re just getting into 3D printing and want a printer that’s easy to operate and pretty reliable then the Sovol SV01 is a great choice. Finally, if none of the other printers fit your liking, the Creality CR-10 V3 is always an option, boasting a large print space.

No matter what printer you have, don’t forget to have some fun when printing flexible filaments. And, if you ever run into an issue, remember that help is just a few clicks away!

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