The growth of 3D printing in the 21st century means the industry must raise awareness of the associated risks of additive manufacturing and put the appropriate safeguards in place.
While the 3D printing industry is having a positive effect on society, enabling us to create everything from precision aerospace components to complex medical devices, being aware of the potential hazards is crucial.
© Pixel B / Shutterstock
The increased accessibility of 3D printing technology brings health considerations in the shape of employees being exposed to potentially dangerous fumes.
This is where fume and dust extraction solutions play a vital role, providing a safe workplace throughout the entire printing process.
Growth of 3D printing
With more businesses using 3D printing as part of their day-to-day operations, there is increased awareness of how combustible dust and hazardous fumes are being produced.
Around 27% of businesses are now using 3D printing to produce consumer goods, according to research carried out in 2023. Over the next decade, experts predict the market is set to rise by a further 25%. It is used for mass manufacturing by 18% of users, with 49% completing large runs of items.
Businesses are reporting significant expenditure on the latest technology, while international companies are embracing it to produce large quantities of consumer products.
Globally, 2.2 million 3D printers have been sold to clients to date, according to the latest data, including 168,000 in the UK.
The process’s ability to create products with complex shapes is its main advantage, with 69% of users citing this as the reason they invested in a 3D printer.
Sports manufacturer Adidas reportedly uses 3D printed soles in its latest 4DFWD running shoes.
Health risks of 3D printing
Working in the 3D printing, rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing industry exposes employees to different types of potentially hazardous dust and fumes – various resins, polymers, ceramics and cement can be used for 3D printing.
The printer uses advanced methods, such as fused deposition modelling, to create the end results. This emits ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds throughout the printing process.
The use of materials such as Polylactic Acid and Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene can release ultrafine particles and harmful compounds, putting workers’ health at risk if not managed properly – styrene can cause irritation to the lungs, nose and throat, headaches, drowsiness, nausea and neurological problems if employees are not protected from it.
When the emissions from 3D printing processes are not managed appropriately, this can lead to long-term health risks, including irreversible respiratory problems.
Scientists have begun to investigate the health impacts of working in 3D printing only recently, as it is a young industry. Research to date has suggested employees need protection from dust and fumes whether they work in the printing or post-printing operations, in binder jetting, material extrusion, or powder bed fusion.
Protecting employee health
Employers whose workers are exposed to 3D printing technology must use the appropriate dust and fume extraction solutions to protect the workforce. This is vital not only to ensure employee wellbeing, but also to comply with the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, which is a statutory requirement in the UK managed by the Health and Safety Executive.
The HSE has already published a report raising concerns about the harmful emissions from 3D printers. It formed a working group, whose members included the British Standards Institute and 3D printer manufacturers, to study the potential risks and develop a good practice guide for users.