3D Printers: A fantastic tool but with a caveat


Once a rarity, 3D printers are becoming an important addition to the D&T toolbox. David Barkham, Technical Director at AMS Technology Solutions examines the dangers involved in 3D printing and the measures that are being taken to mitigate the risks.

The modern D&T workshop is equipped with all the tools needed to prepare our children for the wider world in design and manufacturing. From laser cutters to CNC routers they are designed to encourage and enable students to thrive in an increasingly technological field.

3D printing has been around for a long time in one form or another and since the introduction of inexpensive fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printers they have become a familiar sight in many Design and Technology workshops and classrooms. The technology is as innovative as it is exciting and has amazed scores of parents at school open evenings around the country. The process involves the use of various types of polymers and pushing them under pressure through a heated nozzle. The melted plastics are laid down in a series of layers with each layer allowed to cool and bond before the next one is deposited. The process, while slow is extremely effective and impressive models can be produced.

The risks

What is less well known is there is now firm evidence showing that there are health and safety risks associated with the process of heating and extruding plastic filament of all types to form 3D models.

Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is a petroleum based, non-biodegradable plastic often used in 3D printers. While considered safe in it’s cold and stable state it has been suspected that the heating of ABS has released certain volatile organic compounds (VOCS) into the air that in their separate states are known carcinogens. In 2015 3Dsafety.org published a study that found that “both the gaseous molecules and the nanoparticles are inhaled by humans through the olfactory system. The ultrafine particulate is deposited mainly in the cells of the respiratory organs and through the olfactory nerves of the nasal mucosa, it reaches the brain.” It’s safe to say that this is a material that should be treated with a degree of caution.

A more common material seen used on school 3D printers is polylactic acid or PLA. This material is considered much safer than ABS and is even biodegradable. It is used in medical implants for anchors, screws and plates and is gradually broken down inside the body in up to two years. The problem comes in the method that the PLA enters the body. As with ABS the heating and extruding of the PLA releases vast amounts of nanoparticles. In fact printing just 1 cubic cm of PLA can produce more than 30,000 micro-particles and recent testing by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that these Ultra Fine Particles (UFP) and VOCs could enter the airways. While it concluded that further research into the harm this could cause was needed it did release a set of control measures that should be followed to conform to HS&W and minimise the risks to both students and school employees.

The solution

Several manufacturers have reacted to this research and started to incorporate hoods over their 3D printers. However, a more suitable solution that addresses the needs of all models of FFF 3D printers on the market is what is needed. Two UK manufacturers have put forward two different but effective solutions to this problem.

Dorset based BOFA International have developed a range of filter units that are designed to work specifically with a range a different 3D printers. With over thirty years of experience BOFA are well suited to the task.

Meanwhile in Leeds, Kora 3D was heavily involved with the aforementioned HSE study. The HSE report also raised the possibility of injury caused by trapping fingers or burns from the hot areas of the printers. With that in mind Kora’s solution was to create a safety enclosure complete with filtration system. The safety aspect was further enhanced by heat detectors and a fire extinguisher in case the worst happens. They have provided a range of cabinets to suit all 3D printers and will even build bespoke units on request.

Both innovative products are available through AMS Technology Solutions. AMS have been actively supplying the education market with high quality machines since 1995. They are a company that specialises in UK designed and built equipment from laser cutters and 3D printers to filter units and dry-mist sanitising machines.

Stay safe

3D printers are a relatively low-cost tool that can really fire the imagination of creative students. They quite rightly should be in every D&T classroom but we have a duty of care towards our students and employees. Thankfully, British industry has that covered.

Further information