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Growth of 3D printing outpaces legislation

by Dave de Jong
EcoLog, 5/1/2015 10:08:00 AM

The rapid expansion in deployment and uses of 3D printers since the first patent was filed in Japan in 1980 has outstripped legislation.

There is no equipment-specific standards for 3D printers, presenter Wagish Yajaman told session attendees at the Partners in Prevention 2015 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show in Mississauga, Ontario on April 28, 2015. In addition, the possibly toxic effects of the materials used in some of the 3D printing processes are not fully understood.

Originally intended as a way of one-off prototyping of industrial parts and equipment, 3D printing has expanded into the on-demand manufacture of complete products in a stunning variety of industries.

Yajaman, supervisor of technical services with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services which organized the conference, noted 3D printing is now being used to create products varying from a fully-functioning lithium-ion battery the size of a grain of sand to a four-storey apartment building in China “printed” in concrete. There are applications in the automotive, electronics, construction and aerospace industries; biomedical uses to build forms on which tissues can be grown for transplant; military-use body armour and guns; and even in the food industry where, for example, bakers are using 3D printers to decorate cakes.

Research into potential toxic effects of materials and how they are used is still in the early stages.

Chemical vapours are created from thermoplastic polymers used in some forms of 3D printing, Yajaman said, noting the materials are being heated to a very high temperature rather than burned “but not much is known about these hazards”. In addition, the reduced cost of 3D printers means they are readily available to consumers who have no technical knowledge about the processes or understanding of the potential risks involved.

Yajaman pointed to an incident in which he found a 3D printer being used in an easily accessed, unsecured and unguarded area at his local high school. “There were obviously vapours being created,” he said, “because I could smell them. What are the impacts? No one seemed concerned.”

Some 3D printers use mixtures of powdered chemicals or metals that may be toxic if inhaled or ingested. There are also safety issues around the high heat and high electric voltages required to operate laser and electron beam printers. And, there are potentially wider but unknown effects if some of the newer materials, such as nano-silver, are released into the environment. “The EHS impact, especially with nano-materials, is poorly understood,” Yajaman said.

Anyone contemplating adapting the 3D printing technology in his business should always follow applicable regulations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Material Safety Data Sheets for the materials used, and any manufacturer instructions.

The key, Yajaman said, is to conduct a thorough risk assessment, develop a plan and then train employees on the plan before implementation.

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