Additive manufacturing and 3D printing safety is a subject that is often ‘glossed’ over. And this applies both at the industrial level and the personal level, as well as everything in between — a consequence of the breadth of 3D printing platforms and materials accessible across many market segments today.
Have you noticed how safety is something we, as humans, generally take for granted — until we don’t have it? To generalise, most people do tend to assume a common sense approach to safety, and don’t intentionally place themselves in harm’s way, although I’m sure we can all think of exceptions. Then there are the times we overlook or blatantly ignore regulations — formal or otherwise — pertaining to our safety because they are inconvenient and we marginalise the risk(s) to save time, maybe to get home a bit sooner or such like.
Across the West, formalised, government-sponsored health and safety organisations exist, not to make our lives miserable, although they can bring bureaucratic pain, but to keep us safer than we might otherwise be. On an industrial level, formal processes and procedures around safe operations of machinery and facilities exist, but talking to Paul Bates of UL recently, it became obvious that this does not necessarily translate directly to the use of additive manufacturing equipment — or 3D printing equipment operating in maker spaces or design studios or homes.
This article primarily deals with the former, but will touch on the latter. As additive manufacturing processes increasingly become embedded into industrial plants and facilities the safety issues remain constant, while the risk factors increase proportionally to the number of installations, the lack of information and understanding around safety in 3D printing and, it has to be said, a great deal of ‘wrong information’. According to Paul Bates, one of the greatest risks comes from not fully understanding the safety issues before installation.
In essence this is an industry wide problem, caused in part by the speed at which additive manufacturing technologies have evolved. Comprehensive safety standards don’t actually exist specifically for AM, but there are some efforts to combat this. Many of the safety issues around AM come from managing the process, but there are also factors concerning part safety that need to be considered too. Part quality is often cited as a key pre-requisite when sourcing AM equipment, but the part safety aspect is also of vital importance. When the part comes off the machine — how safe is it? How can you tell? What work needs to be undertaken for full assurance? Many users are not aware of their compliance responsibilities or, more pertinently, their liabilities.
Getting down to the nitty gritty, what are the specific safety issues that arise for additive manufacturing?
However one breaks down the different additive processes, all of the existing processes – powder bed, resin tanks, deposition, laser melting, binder jetting, electron beams — they all incorporate safety risks with regard to materials handling and control and containment of the machinery.
With powdered materials, specifically those with particles sizes smaller than 100 microns, inhalation and skin exposure is an obvious place to start. More-over the long-term effects of exposure to these materials are still an unknown quantity. On the machines themselves, laser melting platforms with powder beds tend to utilise gasses such as argon or nitrogen to displace oxygen, which makes the build environment less volatile. In terms of safe human operation, this demands the facility is well ventilated and monitored consistently for air quality, an issue that increases exponentially in relation to the number of AM machines running.
Another 3D printing safety issue arises around the static electricity and condensate created by powder bed metal AM machines and the resulting flammability risks. This is a big one, actually. Most platforms do incorporate filters to combat this issue and grounding the machine correctly mitigates the problem of static electricity. However, it is startling to learn that while there has been no major incident with an AM machine to date, Paul puts down more to luck than judgment. He did cite one incident in the US – a fire that started from AM equipment, where the facility was badly damaged, but no one was hurt. Paul believes this was a result of the machine operators not being properly trained and that the equipment was not grounded properly. The results were devastating, but, fortunately, there was no loss of life. There are also reports of incidents in Asia, where H&S is not as tight as in the west. Again, these reports tell of damages to equipment and facilities rather than human injuries.
And herein lies the crux of the matter, as adoption, particularly of metal AM processes, increases; the risk increases as more “general users” are exposed to the dangers, without fully understanding the equipment they are installing and without proper training for operators. Moreover, the safety policing bodies (OSHA in the US and EU, HSE in the UK etc) do not seem to be fully aware of specific safety requirements for AM. These regulatory bodies have the power to shut organisations down if safety is not adhered to — the most pressing problem is, though, that they’re not up to speed on AM.
However, Paul has noticed a more recent trend, whereby insurance companies are starting to ask questions and identify risks. This is a trend that could truly see users taking the safety issues much more seriously, as the implications of raised insurance premiums bear down on bottom lines.
Paul’s solution — for all industrial applications of AM — is a well-documented safety plan. This is vital, he says and should be a pre-requisite ahead of installation. Paul feels so strongly about these issues, it’s why he left the private sector (working with Reebok) to take a position that would allow him to push these issues front and centre, and he works tirelessly in this regard. Paul worked at Reebok for 20+ years and built and managed that company’s AM facilities in the US. He believes that this knowledge and experience is translatable.
Now working at UL, he has the experience and the opportunity to spearhead two different but complementary programmes — training and a safety advisory service. As well as equipment certification, ensuring safety of the equipment and facilities for operation.
The work being undertaken by UL around safety and training is, I believe, of paramount importance and not something that should be overlooked — ever.