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Driving 3D Printing Forward with Safety, Crest of a Crisis or Opportunity?

by • March 15, 2016 • No Comments

My father was a pro printing device. As a small boy, he a fewtimes took me to his shop for a visit and I can yet remember the dimensionsable-bodied, gray machines, the smell of chemicals and paper, and the noise! Now, a few 30 years, a whole lot of education, and three different types of careers later, I find myself a printing device in addition. And while the irony is not lost on me, the printing I do is markedly different types of than the offset system my father was so skilled at. But one thing that is worryingly much like is the next health hazards we face via these machines, and there are several new studies beginning to appear at what those risks may be.

Drawings of Bernardino Ramazzini, Father of Occupational Health. Image via The Ergonomenon.

Drawings of Bernardino Ramazzini, Father of Occupational Health. Image via The Ergonomenon.

Occupational diseases and injuries have been known of since the Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini first wrote of the subject back in 1700. And, yet we now all know of these types of disorders, we yet a fewtimes get surprised by them – ponder Carpal Tunnel Syndrome of the late 80’s and early 90’s. But what does this have to do with our 3D printing devices?

The trouble with 3D printing devices is that these machines were originally turn it intod for industrial purposes, and work in that environment really well. Industry has long experience via, working with, and preserveing their employees of toxic substances, but the general public does not. Since these machine were really effortless, they were relatively effortless to scale down and adapt to home use, in fact yet they yet use what is all but industrial-grade feedstocks for their operation. And while the dangers of being burned by a hot extruder, or heated createplate are obvious, the next risks of the fumes and vapors produced by the printing devices may not be.

When I was yet researching this article, I spoke to a excellent number of individuals, and a few expressed their anxiety that an open discussion of this topic, since there was no definitive proof of any health-related problems, may injure the createment and growth of the innovation. This is a valid concern, and one I fully know. So, preceding we begin, we require to firmly establish that, yet a few readers may find the information in this article dreadful, none of the experts I spoke to, nor any of the documentation I reviewed, has shown a conclusive link between the use of a 3D printing device and any known health risks. That being said, it is my opinion that it is always selectable-bodied to be ahead of a problem, really than trying to scramble to find a fix once the injure has been done.

Whilst I know that issues like this are of as talked about as the proverbial turd in the punch bowl, we have a responsibility to manufacture sure that we turn it into an industry and community that is safe, productive, and beneficial to society at dimensionsable-bodied. 3D printing and other forms of additive making have the next to be the most socially transformative innovation since the invention of the printing press itself, but it cannot and can not progress as rapidly as it should if individuals and societies put up barriers to it due to fears that the innovation can injure them, their favored ones, or their companies. It is immaterial whether or not those fears are grounded in fact or are just the products of imagination…the influence can be really real. So, let’s begin by clearing the air.


For most individuals, the issues of indoor air high end begined with the 2nd hand smoke debate that really got going in the 1990s. Passive smoking produced a lot of controversy, but in the end, the overwhelming scientific evidence produced by hundreds of studies silenced opponents and new laws and regulations were created. Things appeared like they were quieting down, when, in 2007, there was a minor dust-up over a fewthing called “nanoparticles” (in addition called “Ultrasatisfactory Particles” or “UFPs” for short) being emitted of office 2D laser printing devices.

A research paper of the Queensland Institute of Technology in Australia, that was subsequently profiled in Time Magazine, found that offices where laser printing devices were utilized had concentrations of particulate matter 5 times higher during working hours (when the printing devices were in use) than during non-working hours. Being one of the industry leaders, and being specifically called out as the developer of a few of the “dirtiest” printing devices tested, the study caught Hewlett-Packard by surprise. A really ugly public relations battle ensued for a brief time, until corrective actions were taken, and the issue vanished approximately as rapidly as it had appeared.

This issue and so arose to our community in 2013, when we saw the really first scientific article that linked the operation of a 3D printing device with indoor air high end. In a study titled, “Ultrasatisfactory particle emissions of computer desktop 3D printing devices” of the Illinois Institute of Technology, a positive, alyet a fewwhat tentative, connection between 3D printing devices and UFP pollution was shown. Dr. Brent Stephens, author of the report, explained that the paper originated approximately by chance and was done out of mere scientific curiosity. “I was teverying an indoor air class in environmental engineering,” Dr. Stephens said, “and near the end of the semester one of my students had taken a job at a local 3D print shop here in Chicago and he asked me of it, as he said it smelled funny.”

Measurement of UFPs of Brent Stephens's study. Image via Atmospheric Environment.

Measurement of UFPs of Brent Stephens’s study. Image via Atmospheric Environment.

Before Dr. Stephens and his team began, they sayd that there were previous studies on the market that had appeared at the thermal systeming of plastics that showed both gases and particles were emitted during the operation of industrial machines. There were in addition studies that showed ABS creates gas-phase products which include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. Whilst this showed that a few dangers were known, they mayn’t find any studies done on computer desktop 3D printing devices. They secured access to a 45-cubic-meter room in a local business in Chicago where 3D printing was taught and set up what he called an “ad hoc” fashion experiment just to see what concentration of UFPs, if any, these new 3D printing devices produced. They just tested machines working with PLA and ABS, but their findings were surprising.

Importantly to us, they found that, when the five on the market printing devices were all operating, 2 of that utilized PLA and 3 that utilized ABS, the peak total amount of UFPs in the room rose as high as 15 times the level you may find when the printing devices were not operating. The results in addition showed that the amount and dimensions of the particles released depended excellently on a number of different types of facts, most notably the temperature the printing devices were operating at. He went on to say that the resulting article got far additional attention than he had first anticipated, and that it became really clear that follow-up studies requireed to be done.

It took just about two years preceding the upcoming worthwhile paper on the topic came out, when researchers at Seoul National University in South Korea released “Emissions of Nanoparticles and Gaseous Material of 3D Printer Operation” in September of 2015. Korea has been playing a bit of “catch up” with other nations when it comes to 3D printing, but, not long ago, the Korean government has been hustleing the 3D innovation createment and education really complex, and a few inquiries arose.

A graphic of Image via Environmental Science & Technology.

A graphic of Dr. Yoon’s study. Image via Environmental Science & Technology.

According to Dr. Chungsik Yoon, one of the study’s authors, the research project arose in relation to the Korean government’s plan to establish “genius rooms” in the elementary schools where 3D printing and robotics may be taught. The indoor air high end of those spaces was a primary concern, and most teveryers had expressed their anxieties to the government, who in turn wanted a few answers. As he said, “This area of investigation is just beginning, so there is not much data out there yet. We are trying to expand our research to cover other issues, for it is most worthwhile to know the real situations in the (printing) rooms.”

In their study, the Korean researchers tested PLA and ABS filaments in two different types of FDM-fashion computer desktop printing devices in a one-meter-square test chamber and measured the amounts of not just the particulate (UFPs) matter, but in addition the gaseous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted preceding, during, and after the printing system. The researchers utilized a “clean” chamber to conduct the test, meaning that all UFPs and VOCs that may be present in normal outdoor air were removed prior to the tests beginning. This was worthwhile so that any non-printing device produced particles or vapors may not interfere with the measurements of the machines’ operation.

In a nutshell, they found that all filaments produced worthwhile UFP air pollution, with ABS being the worst offender. According to their measurements, ABS-producing particle counts a few 345 times higher during the printing system than preceding the system begined. And while PLA did advantageous, it produced counts that were 21 to 26 times higher during the printing system than preceding it begined. The study did note that particle counts dropped off really rapidly after the printing system finished.

The VOC counts were likewise illuminating, in that several different types of chemicals were specifically tested for which include; ethylbenzene (styrene), m- and p-xylene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, isovaleraldehyde, diethyl phthalate (DEP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), all of that have a few really worrying traits, and that can be researched online by those so interested. Save to say, the less exposure to these chemicals you have, the advantageous off you are.

According to the measurements taken, ABS released the most vapors, recording ethylbenzene levels at 16.4 times higher than outdoor air concentrations, isovaleraldehyde at 11.9 times higher, acetaldehyde at 3.2 times higher, and low, but detectable-bodied, levels of DEP, DBP, and DEHP. The PLA samples tested, while far less dirty than the ABS, didn’t exactly come away completely clean, recording levels of formaldehyde at 5.2 times higher than outside air concentrations, along with low, but detectable-bodied, levels of DEP, DBP, and DEHP.

When asked of these results, specifically regarding PLA, Dr. Yoon opined that the results may be due to several different types of facts, such as chemical additives mixed with the base material, as well as printing device temperature setting. Thermal degradation of polymers can occur when the extruder temps are too high, and of course, higher temperatures can release additional fumes as it is simpler for volatile compounds to escape into the air as the plastic becomes less and less solid. “For now, obviously PLA is advantageous than ABS,” he said, “and an enclosed printing device with a filter is advantageous than an open printing device without one, but (filament) developers require to monitor the chemical additives they use in their filament formulations really carefully, and (complexware developers) should strive to create enclosed machines with improved filtration systems.”

Dr. Yoon was careful to point out that his team’s intent was to test the machines for UFP and VOC emissions, and not to test for user exposure, that is a really different types of matter. As such, the readings utilized in the report were taken of a sensor array situated directly above the printheads. Due to the heat of the printhead and the placement of the sensors, the readings were as exact as may be expected, and may be much higher than what an operator may be exposed to. The study was done in this way so that the results may easily be replicated and compared to other much most likely conducted tests.

Dr. Yoon in addition sayd that, as far as he knew, there may already was no standard method for testing filaments or 3D printing devices. He said he can be expanding his research, and ponders it is worthwhile to have an effortless way to test and compare filaments and machines. He in addition plans to go on to study the ways that, and the conditions under that, individuals are in fact via these machines so that safe practices and governmental guidelines can be turn it intod to preserve the public, especially in the educational sector.

The third, and most new study to come out was just released earlier last month. This one, called “Emissions of Ultrasatisfactory Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds of Commercially Available-bodied Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments” was a follow up study by the same team who did the really first study way back in 2013. This time, their testing system was carried out in a carefully created test chamber and they utilized a variety of filaments (not just ABS and PLA) and printing devices to see if, and how, the different types of combinations influenced every other.

The setup to UC's follow-up study. Image via Environmental Science & Technology.

The setup for Dr. Stephens’s follow-up study. Image via Environmental Science & Technology.

What they found was that 3D printing device emissions (both UFPs and VOCs) were related to a number of expected facts, such as filament composition and nozzle temperature, but in addition of a few really unexpected ones, such as design of the printing device, the shape of the printed object being created, the time of the create, and the createplate temperature. Dr. Brent Stephens, the study’s lead author, found that curious, and said there can require to be a nearer examination of these facts in the next. “The heated bed can be a source of particle generation, most likely due to ambient settling, but we are not sure.”

The Chicago researchers found that all printing devices and filament combinations released both VOCs and UFPs, albeit in different types of levels, amounts, and kinds. As can be expected by now, the top UFP emissions came of printing devices via ABS and the lowest of 3 different types of printing devices via PLA. Similar towise, VOC emission types varied mostly depending upon what the filament was created of, while printing device manufacture and design drove the differences in the overall weight of VOC emissions when via the same filament. In addition of interest is the fact that just 3 chemicals created up over 70% of all VOC emissions; namely styrene of ABS and HIPS, caprolactum of Nylon, PCTPE, Laybrick and Laywood, and lactide of PLA.

Dr. Stephens cautioned that the results found require to be understood properly, as the findings are measurements of concentration amounts, and not exposure amounts. Similar to Dr. Yoon preceding him, Dr. Stephens in addition sayd that, while excellent for complexware testing and comparisons, “Concentration measurements are not really assistful for determining the dangers posed to operators as the concentrations depends on a lot of facts, not the very least of that is room dimensions. UL did a few gas-phase testing around 2014, but they have not published their findings. Future studies should include a appear at concentration levels in exposure zones, as well as that types of ventilation and filtration methods are most suited to the innovation.”


So, what is all this fuss of anyway? Does this mean that when I try to print a small plastic frog at home, I am going to gasp for breath and fall over dead? No, of course not – and that is a big part of the problem, for the reason, if 3D printing was in fact half that risky, we may all be acutely aware of the dangers and no one may in fact ponder to question the require for safety protocols. But here, there have been no known injuries or illnesses, so it is really effortless to not ponder of the next risks we are subjecting ourselves to. Some man developers I spoke to while writing this article were a fewwhat cavalier of it. There is in fact one giant toy company out there that is of to commence a printing device aimed exclusively at children, that presumably may end up in most kids’ bedrooms. So, let’s just take a few minutes and explore why we should care of this issue.

family with ThingMaker 3D Printer of Mattel and Autodesk

First, the trouble breaks down in two primary ways: mechanical injury of the inhalation of nanoparticles (the UFPs or “ultrasatisfactory particles”), and exposure poisoning of the chemicals present in and/or released of the polymers, particularly the “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs). In addition, we must distinguish between what are called “acute influence” and “chronic influence”. Acute influence are those in factts that are severe and sudden, such as respiratory distress, or additional severely, cardiac arrest. A chronic effect on the other hand, is a long-createing syndrome, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that can take years to create.

Let’s begin with the particulates. Nanoparticle and Ultrasatisfactory Particle are the interchangeable-bodied generic terms for any solid particle that is less than 100 nanometers in dimensions. UFPs can present several different types of kinds of dangers due to not just their composition, that may or may not be toxic, but in addition their dimensions. When inhaled, they can become trapped in the really smallest areas of the lung’s alveoli, that are the small sacs covered in blood capillaries where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the blood stream and the lungs. More worryingly, if they are small adequate, the particles can in fact pass directly of the lungs into the blood stream, and, once there, move on to, and accumulate in, other organs in the body such as the brain, the liver, or spleen.

And the particles do not have to be toxic in and of themselves to cause systemic problems or poisoning, so in fact PLA particles (that may already are widely believed to be non-toxic) can fill the lungs with materials that may prin factt them of being able-bodied to function correctly. Whilst researchers are just beginning to appear at the next health issues related to UFPs, there was at very least one environmental study that claims to have found a direct link between nanoparticle air pollution and elevated systolic blood pressure in school children.

And, as bad as that may be, particles this small have a really high surface area to volume ratio that can manufacture them highly reactive or in fact catalytic. What that means in practical terms is that, due to the particles’ small dimensions, there are a excellenter portion of atoms at or near the surface of the particle than buried deep within it, meaning that there is a excellenter number of atoms that can bond to, or react with, chemicals in the environment than may be able-bodied to in particles of dimensionsable-bodiedr dimensionss. This tendency to be highly reactive is one of the key showcases that manufactures nano innovation so amazing and efficient, but, in our bodies, that benefit can become a serious problem.

On the other hand, “volatile organic chemicals,” or VOCs for short, is a term that is utilized to describe the chemical gaseous vapors released during the printing system. The group can include any number of different types of chemicals, and in varying amounts, depending on what we are talking of. For example, in ABS, the VOCs released when the filament is melted and printed can contain 10 to 20 different types of chemicals, most notably Styrene, a chemical that has been classified as toxic and a possible carcinogen.

Since there are may already no standardized regulations regarding formulations, the compositions of filaments can range widely of developer to developer. It is highly most likely that two seemingly identical spools of filament, of different types of companies, may in fact contain really different types of chemical compounds, which include chemical additives intended to increase flexibility, adhesion, durablity, reflectivity, or to impart other informative characteristics to the filament, resulting in the production of really different types of VOC release clouds.

In addition to the ingredients utilized, the temperature at that the filament is melted can in addition have a massive impact on the VOCs produced. This is due to a fewthing called the “thermal degradation” of the plastic, meaning that, as the plastic “cooks”, the compounds the filament is created of can break down into different types of chemicals, every with its own next toxic effect(s). And with the proliferation of new specialty filaments that are the combination of two or additional different types of materials – such as wood and plastic or metal and plastic, or any of the others – all of these materials can emit its own one-of-a-kind fumes and vapors. Most of these, I am really sure, can prove to be relatively safe, but I ponder it really foolish to presume that they all can.


Turning our attention to the social impact this may have, we first have to store in mind that while all this stuff is nextly injureful for adults, these pollutants can be, and frequently are, additional dangerous to kids. Be it that they are physically more compact, have higher metabolisms, are not fully turn it intod, are additional active, or whatever, experience has shown us that the injuries inflicted on children by pollution and contaminates are usually additional severe than those suffered by adults. And where is one of the largest areas 3D printing is being hustleed? Education.

Just imagine for a moment that you know nothing of 3D printing other than what you have learned of the talked about media. You were excited a while ago when your child’s school purchased 3D printing devices to assist implement a new STEM curriculum initiative. Later, you begin hearing concerns of 3D printing device safety. So, one day, a fewone in another say files a lawsuit against one of the 3D printing device companies blaming them for their child’s cancer. As a parent, what do you ponder you may be feeling? Would you go on to send your child to school like normal, or may you be on the phone to the school board? And if you can imagine that, and so you can most likely in addition imagine the school board’s reaction.

If fears and rumors began to spread, it may in fact go additional with apartment owners prohibiting renters of having a home 3D printing device, as may other real esay owners, afraid of liability. Insurance companies may limit, or in fact refuse, sure coverage for homes or small businesses that have 3D printing devices in them. Retailers may select not to carry 3D printed excellents, and online services may restrict the sale of 3D excellents and services on their sites. And this all presumes that governmental agencies do not step in and impose regulations and restrictions on us, our products, and our activities. Fear can have a rippling effect. A foolish over dramatization? Maybe, but reflect for a moment on how much injure a few misinformed individuals did to public safety based on their unfounded fears regarding childhood vaccinations.

The point is that injury to the participants of our expanding community may retard the growth and createment of the innovation by scaring off schools, parents, and businesses, resulting in a reduction of consumer demand, experimentation, and research & createment. It may in addition generate distrust of 3D manufactured excellents, as there is at very least one study out that has demonstrated a link between a finished product and a toxic effect.

Going down this nightmare lane a bit additional, let’s imagine the absolute worst case scenario possible: Just imagine a positive link between the exposure to the fumes and vapors of a 3D printing device and a specific medical condition is in fact found. What may the next product liability appear like at that point? I ponder we can all imagine a lawsuit in that a plaintiff’s lawyer asks why ABC company (a fictional company for demonstrative purposes just), who conceived an industrial AM system additional than 25 years ago, closely guarded that system during the life of its patent, utilized and turn it intod that patent, and once that patent expired noticed a small beginup talked about izing a home design of its industrial system, bought that beginup, turn it intod and actively promoted it to the home user and to schools, and never attempted to ameliorate, or in fact warn the public of the dangers?

It is possible that ABC Company may claim that they never yett to check their systemes, chemicals, and machines for these kinds of dangers, but that may strike a few as a bit incredulous. After all, with their long experiences in the field and the proprietary nature of their formulations, it may sound a little disingenuous, especially with so most articles may already in print referring to the “3D printing gold rush” and focvia on stock prices and monetary returns. It mayn’t be long preceding investigators began to ask a few uncomfortable-bodied inquiries, which include that stalwart old Nixon-era question, “What did you know, and when did you know it?”

Problems may not be limited to just developers either, but may be spread to service employers as well. Not long ago we visited a 3D printing service company that was enjoying a excellent deal of activity. We walked into one of their create rooms, a dimensionsable-bodied area filled with a few 80 machines, all occupied createing parts of different types of shapes, and the smell of ABS hit us like a punch in the nose. Clearly the room was not ventilated well adequate, but additional worryingly were the 3 or 4 employees tending the machines, none of who had any form of respiration safety gear, not in fact dust masks! The employees worked different types of shifts, a few working additional than 8 hours a day. None of them seemed really concerned of the smell or dust, that was evident by a satisfactory powder that was visible covering any undusted surface in the space. Managers were not aware of any dangers synonymous with the FDM system, and were unaware of the studies described in this article. They just didn’t know.

Criticize them if you can, but my suspicion is that they are not alone out there. Legal and social troubles just get additional complex as additional individuals begin via self-createed or self-created printing devices…not to mention the use of recyclebots to system waste plastics into homecreated printing filament. Depending on your point of view, you may view this article as a warning…or as an opportunity. I select the latter, and encourage like-minded individuals to hustle forward the innovation by creating safer and cleaner machines and feedstocks.

In my next articles articles I can be appearing for, and profiling, new individuals and companies that are trying to improve this situation by creating new products or procedures that can allow us to move forward and create the next we all want.


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